In 1997, Shell began work on the world’s deepest offshore oil rig; Ursa. This monster of a project would cost $1.45 billion and stand 48 stories tall. The men who worked on this project were no strangers to workplace injuries and death; it had all become part of the job. If someone died, they were afforded a 15-minute break to recover, and then it was back to work. That’s just how it was.
Well. That’s how it was until a 64-year-old French woman taught the men to cry and they saw an 84% reduction in incidents.
In 1997, Rick Fox became the new asset leader for the URSA project. Due to its scale, the risk of serious incidents during its construction and operation were far greater than any other project Fox had undertaken. Rightly so, this had Fox worried and seeking a new approach to management.
It was around this time that he received a call from Claire Nuer. Nuer, a 64 French leadership consultant, had heard about the project and believed she could help. Her approach however was quite different to what Fox had in mind…
Nuer’s believed that the key to making the Ursa project safe, lied in teaching the workers to be more open about their feelings. (Nuer’s approach resulted in an 84% reduction in incidents; so don’t scoff.)
Now, this unorthodox approach to health and safety was met with about as much enthusiasm as you might expect from a group of burly, stiff-upper-lip, man’s-man oil rig workers.
The sessions were intense, lasting from 6 am in the morning to 11 pm at night. The training encouraged the men to talk about their lives; their hardships; their worries. At first, the process was slow, but once one man had done it though, more started. What they discovered was that there were a lot of unhappy people on the rig with very hard lives. Some of the men report breaking down weeping but none report ever having anyone ever pull them up on it.
As the questions got harder and more personal Nuer’s approach started to produce a distinct result: the men lost their fear of vulnerability.
The goal of this training was to improve workers’ communication by making them more open about their vulnerabilities. Communication is key to a good health and safety program as it allows for the admission of mistakes and openness to learning. As a result of more open communication on the Ursa project:
And of course, the project saw an astronomical 84% decline in workplace incidents. Because of its success, it was implemented company-wide.
From Harvard Business Review:
“Over the 15-year period these changes in work practices, norms, perceptions, and behaviours were implemented company-wide. The company’s accident rate declined by 84%, while productivity (number of barrels produced), efficiency (cost per barrel), and reliability (production “up” time) increased beyond the industry’s previous benchmark.”
-Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2008/07/unmasking-manly-men
In short, there’s a lot of oil workers out there who owe their lives to Claire Nuer. That’s not a bad result at all for a project started by an out-of-left-field, 64-year-old, new-age consultant.
Not a bad result at all.
As always, stay safe out there.
By Christopher Notley-Smith at donesafe.com
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