We visited Tideway’s innovative induction programme to see how ATT’s immersive and theatrical approach can build a safer work culture.
A young woman is standing before us in a flat filled with the clutter of parenthood: cartons of milk formula, an unmade bed after a restless night, and half-finished mugs of tea in the sink.
She makes small talk until the subject turns to her father, Michael Clark.
Her voice breaks and she is momentarily overcome by emotion, remembering the father she has only known through photos…
As it happens, she is an actor, and her father Michael is a fiction.
This is not her flat but the second floor of an office block in Vauxhall, London.
Standing slightly awkwardly around her are me and about two dozen men and a few women here for their first day of work at Tideway.
A few of us have children of our own, and one of our number has a six-month-old baby at home. He looks as though he can relate to our surroundings.
This is EPIC, or ‘Employer Project Induction Centre’, and it is Tideway’s innovative approach to safety.
Setting the scene
Over the course of the day, we witness some of the events surrounding the death of Michael Clark: snatches of a conversation in a site canteen, assurances given in a project board room, an interview by a Health and Safety Executive investigator.
The point that emerges is that injuries and fatalities are rarely the result of a single bad decision, and there are often multiple opportunities to avoid them.
Many of the characters and situations we witness seem familiar to the participants here today, such as dealing with stressed managers and constant time pressure.
Safety is the highest priority
After the break, the programme delivery director at Tideway, Andy Alder, gives a short presentation.
He explains that he and the other directors agreed that Tideway’s highest priority must be to avoid harming its workers.
Every person working on the project - from the chief executive to the operatives on the ground to the back-office staff and the suppliers - must complete this induction.
He promises that no employee will ever be sanctioned or ignored for raising a concern or suggesting an improvement and that there are multiple channels for doing so, including a confidential hotline.
The impact of heightened emotional and sensory experiences
The day-long programme has been designed and facilitated by Active Training Team (ATT), a company that specialises in immersive and experiential training and has worked on several other major engineering projects.
EPIC has seen 21,000 people pass through its doors since ATT started working with Tideway in 2015.
The intention is not only to give employees a clear understanding of their role in promoting a safe culture, but also for them to understand how it would feel to lose a colleague like Michael.
ATT’s website says: “Behind the effectiveness of our work lies a deep understanding of the way that heightened emotional and sensory experiences impact on learning, memory, recall, and subsequent behaviour.”
The rest of the day focuses on developing skills such as how to communicate effectively, influence colleagues and challenge risky behaviour.
By the end, we have identified how the actions and decisions of the characters have contributed to a tragic fatality.
Safety is a collective and ongoing responsibility
With the help of the actors, who are excellent, we have rehearsed how to apply the skills we have learned to bring about a different outcome.
The point is not to assign blame, but to reinforce that safety is a collective and ongoing responsibility, and that the absence of an incident does not always signify a healthy safety culture.
The approach seems to be working for Tideway. Its latest annual report shows that it is meeting its target of zero major injuries and significant incidents in its marine operations.
It also notes an Accident Frequency Rate close to its target of zero and says this "has remained below the highs experienced during other large infrastructure projects".
A recent report from the ICE explained how the leadership team set out to beat industry norms, which might have expected to see 3,000 trips to A&E, 200 or more life-changing health impacts, 150 serious injuries and two fatalities for a project of Tideway’s length and scale.
Experience it yourself
You can experience ATT’s immersive approach to safety training yourself at the Inspiring Engineering Excellence conference on 6 December.
The event is an opportunity for civil engineers to pinpoint how they can improve safety management, better investigate when things go wrong, and create a more constructive approach to sharing best practice and lessons.