• Dennis Barnes is chief executive of Contact Energy

I started my career as a metallurgist, an engineer specialising in the properties of metals and with a passion for numbers and structure. So data and procedure has been vital in my broader career in wholesale energy markets, risk management and executive leadership.

But it's not so effective in keeping people safe and building a culture where they care about safety and are empowered to seek better ways to be safe.

For me it's taken a change in mindset, and a level of trust to let go of that need for data and procedure and let the people who really matter - the workers at the sharp end managing risk every day - get on with the job of being safe.


It's now six months since the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force, a regime that calls for an attitudinal shift, encouraging everyone - all workers and those in the boardroom - to share the roles and responsibilities for safety.

Contact Energy's leadership has been making this shift over the past few years. The data-driven, top-down health and safety implementation wasn't fully delivering reasonable and workable safety outcomes for our people.

We've found that when you let go of the rulebook a little and start asking workers where the next accident will happen and support them in finding solutions, the results are profound.

During the past two years we've done a lot of experimenting and found the solutions to better safety are coming from our sharp-end workers - supporting them rather than directing them.

One experiment has been adopting learning teams. And it is transforming our worker participation and engagement in health and safety.

Despite all that nice data showing consistent reduction in injury rates, things were plateauing and our people said they felt corporate head office controlled health and safety, with not enough two-way communication.

If our people felt they weren't being listened to, how did we know we were doing things well?

Our first employee health and safety culture survey opened our eyes and set us on the path to change. Contact leaders agreed less directing and demanding was needed and more listening, empowering and supporting.

Learning teams replaced the formal inquiries we used to run after a safety incident.

In one example, a night crew was using a crane to lift diaphragms out of power station turbines when they found one wouldn't budge. With build-up of geothermal fluid and highly tensioned lifting equipment, there was a high risk of the gear dislodging. And it did - we ended up with a heavy bolt dropping and lifting equipment swinging about. No one was hurt and the crew did all the right things by stopping any further lifting, checking everyone was fine, including the equipment.

Previously we would have reacted by flying in a contingent from head office, putting the crew through one-on-one investigations and probably banning the person who oversaw the lift from working on our sites again. Not to mention adding another 10 pages to a lift procedure.

Instead, we had a diverse group of workers coming together to understand what conditions were present, how the lift went wrong and what lessons and actions would improve our defences. And we did this at night with the crew, rather than making them come in during the day.

By focusing on failing safely and learning from incidents, we've not just achieved better results, but can better assess the conditions, issues and risks, and identify more effective solutions.

Learning teams put problem identification and solution creation in the hands of the people who do the work every day and know what the risks are, what works and what doesn't work.

And it's reaping rewards. The past few years' injuries are of a less serious nature and our near misses are less severe. This tells us we are increasing our capacity to "fail safely"; we're learning and we're improving. And our people are telling us things are better too.

But numbers are only part of the story. What a learning approach does is flip from a culture where people feel wary of reporting incidents because "failure is bad" to one where it's welcomed as a chance to learn and improve.

At first I felt uncomfortable letting go of my need for procedures and numbers first, but I now firmly believe it's having people engaged and talking about safety that really makes the difference.

Learning teams empower people to own health and safety processes and outcomes. Leaders support rather than direct.

By moving away from blame, to workers and leaders problem-solving together, everyone is happier and safer, working more constructively.

Any business can benefit from the approach and it's inexpensive and simple to implement. Contact has partnered with Worksafe NZ to make resources on this approach freely available.

For a learning team video, case study and guidelines, see: tinyurl.com/jeurmnk