‘Leadership first, and you’ll get safety for free.’

Serious accidents in the construction industry are closely related to culture. It’s too “tough”, there’s not enough leadership. This has to change, from country to country, down to the sub-sub-contractors. BAM has a leading role to play here, and so does hein, because as Geert van der Linde, corporate safety officer, puts it: ‘This is deep, it has real impact.’

By Jurjen de Jong

Van der Linde: ‘For the third year running we’ve had the same number of accidents with the same workforce. Compared to other companies, our number is not bad, but we want to drive it down even further. We put a lot of energy into improving safety, from the board to the work place, including sub-contractors and sub-sub-contracotrs. We have the knowledge, the tools and the awareness, but something is missing. Naturally, we took a good look at ourselves and concluded that we were lacking leadership. Leadership prompts actions – and we don’t mean just “leadership from the board”, but leadership from a foreman, who’s practically involved. This touches us all: everyone can speak up about safe behaviour. Culture is an important factor here: the construction sector is populated by “tough guys”, who live in a culture where you “don’t interfere with how someone else is doing their work”.

Colleagues have an opinion about each other’s working methods, but they tend to keep it to themselves. Speaking up about safety, that’s what’s missing. This kind of behaviour is deeply rooted in the whole industry, here and abroad, and changing that is a difficult task. BAM wants to play a leading role in the change, and we welcome any kind of help there is. When we discover something, we address it carefully, moving from top to bottom, and so it was with hein. We started off with a pilot for only 15 people, but these people were the Board of Directors and the chairpeople of the boards of our subsidiary companies in the Netherlands. Our prerequisite for stepping things up a notch was that the pilot with hein worked well with a small group. Now, let me tell you, that small group was deeply affected.

‘We started off with hein with a pilot for the Board of Directors. Let me tell you, they were deeply affected.’

Why were they so affected?

Van der Linde: ‘Before I tell you that, there is something else you have to know. In this industry, and in this company too, unfortunately, we see cases where colleagues have a serious accident, and even cases where they don’t make it. We never want to see that, it doesn’t fit in with our company. The Board of Directors is fully aware of this, and after serious incidents there is a lot of close communication between the people at the top and the people involved with the accident. The distance between management and the work place disappears immediately. We take our time to process incidents. We aren’t that company that just has large safety certificates on the wall and a couple of nice stories to tell shareholders: what matters is the people, numbers are just a result! You’ll also find this mindset in hein: you have to lead “as a human being”, so lead from the heart. That’s hein’s strength, it asks you to make the most of the strength within yourself.

We already had the feeling that hein could do that, and that’s a main reason why we opted for hein in the first place. The selection procedure was a rather tough one though: we had invited four companies, each focusing on psychology and behaviour. Initially, the differences between them didn’t seem too big, but in the end Jules Heijneman was at a different level than the others.’

Because hein…?
Van der Linde: ‘Because the human aspect was important for us, it was vital that the person presenting their case really showed this. We wanted someone who doesn’t only start a new conversation, but also gives something back. It had to feel genuine. This gives it a personal touch, which gets the real stories to emerge. Stories about someone working in his garden with a saw, until his wife asked him “is what you’re doing really safe?” How would you react? Everyone knows these questions, even if they don’t speak up. So, what would you do? Do you ask your colleagues that question? Hein kick starts that process, and that’s how managers should treat safety: not just with stories, but by talking about it with conviction, passion. When you can show people that it’s real, that this is a genuine situation, that’s when you motivate people to take action. That’s a real leader. Leaders are not always the people wearing the ‘leadership’ hat, the real leaders are the people who dare to speak up.’

In the construction industry, cooperation with a number of different companies is very common. Working on the construction site, or still prepping in the office, you’ll find some people who have heard about hein, and some who have never come across him. That can make it difficult to get a result. Van der Linde: True. More often than not, though, we operate as a management organization. The people doing the “work” are often subcontractors, so we can decide how we want the work to be done. The client also wields a lot of influence. You need leadership to be clear about how you want it, and this includes demanding that work be stopped “if this or that happens, or is at risk of happening.” Then, of course, your actions also have to follow your words.”

BAM operates all over the world. How can you see hein work in multicultural teams?

Van der Linde: ‘That can be a challenge, and I’ll complicate it even further for you. When I visit an industrial building site, everyone wears their safety glasses and helmets, but visiting a more remote project, somewhere in a field, I might just find someone who isn’t. I definitely won’t have been the only one to notice it, but apparently, no one jumps in. Industrial projects have to cope with strict safety policies, and everyone has been through it at least 10 times. It’s an important aspect of the tender phase as well, but in practice it is more difficult. How am I going to get it done? Who will I send to the project? Which subcontractors can handle that level? These questions are often overlooked, or get different answers in projects in environments that are not as strict.’

‘hein kick starts that process: not just with stories, but by talking about it with conviction.’

There’s still a long way to go.

Van der Linde: ‘That’s, so working with hein is not the only measure we’ve taken. We need the client to work with us as well: we can’t do it alone. Our clients and colleagues are also aware of this, and a unique taskforce has been created with ProRail, the Government Buildings Agency and Rijkswaterstaat, three of the country’s biggest clients. You have to approach the whole chain, and you need hein there as well, at the very start of the project. This isn’t restricted to safety, we can make it even broader: “We’re agreeing to …. When we see something that we’re not sure about”. In truth, it’s not about safety, it’s about managing processes, and processes work well when your management is done properly. Put briefly: safety is a result. If your prepare carefully, with the right people and the right subcontractors, you’ll stay within your planned timeframe, you’ll make money, and you’ll get safety as an added bonus. Admittedly, this is a dream situation, and it will take a lot of patience to get there, because, in reality, we’re trying to be very progressive in a conservative industry.’

Van der Linde: ‘Plans should be sound to start with. People should be more aware of the situations they’re putting people in during the design phase. That’s a real point of improvement: middle management is aware of time or budget constraints, and they’ll start to “think up a fix” with the best intentions. This can, however, also be seen as the wrong kind of loyalty. Later on in the process, we might be asked: “why didn’t you plan around this situation?” We should manage the process to the extent that we no longer create those situations.’

Has hein brought in sustainable change?
Van der Linde: ‘We’re only just starting with hein. After the pilot, we started off the top 500 in the Netherlands, who had already heard stories from the pilot. There was a lot of interest, so we decided to invite 650 people. By now, you can find cartoons on construction sites, notice boards and screensavers: they’ve become constant reminders, in a fun way. Every year we hold the BAM Safety Day, all around the world. We make sure that there’s a manager present at each location to speak about safety, and we also use the cartoons. This year, we’ll hand out newspapers that also contain hein cartoons. The whole day will be themed: “the positive side/site of safety”

‘We don’t need even more rules. We need to get to the next level: how do we handle that?’

From awareness to action

We take some steps on a country by country basis, because you have to consider the local culture. In England, we have the campaign “Beyond Zero”, where we claim that the number of incidents shouldn’t just be reduced to zero, but even less. What that means is that “your time at BAM should be a good time.” Staying fit, working on personal development, whatever you want. We don’t need more rules, more safety boots or other products. We need to get to the next level: how do we handle that? We need to get to awareness, and from awareness to action, and with the arrival of hein, that’s starting to come. I can remember someone saying: “Whenever I was on a construction site, I thought that safety was something external. Now I can see safety begins within the construction site, and that I’m responsible for my own safety, as well as my colleagues, just as they are for me.” One of my financial colleagues, who spends most of his time in the office, said: “I don’t visit projects very often, but when I do, I see things that don’t feel right. I never say anything, because I always think I’m not familiar with the whole story, but that time is over now. From now on, when I get that feeling again, I’ll speak up.’