How creating a site safety culture can unlock collaboration by building trust

How creating a site safety culture can unlock collaboration by building trust

Key Points

  • NEC contracts require parties to act in a ‘sprit of mutual trust and co-operation’, but mutual trust is not easy to create.
  • Creating a safety culture through a behavioural engagement and observation programme can trigger a ‘trust loop’ which builds real trust from the workforce upwards.
  • Implementing the programme provides a mechanism for parties to collaborate in a ‘psychologically safe’ environment, reinforcing mutual trust in all site activities.

NEC contracts require contracting parties to act, ‘in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation,’ recognising that the key for successful projects is trust and collaboration. Reinforcing this requirement, my firm YHL Consulting developed a collaborative safety culture programme on the Airport Authority Hong Kong’s (AAHK) first NEC contract on its Third Runway project.

The four-year safety programme was undertaken for contractor China State Construction, which won a HK$2.4 billion (£220 million) NEC3 Engineering and Construction Contract (ECC) Option D (target contract with bill of quantities) for contract 3801 in 2017. It involved building the first 400 m of new people-mover and baggage-handling tunnels connecting the terminal to the new runway (see Issue 115).

We had previously developed an award-winning safety culture for China State and Penta-Ocean from 2105 on their cross-harbour tunnels contract for MTR’s Shatin to Central Link project, plus a safety climate for AAHK’s deep-mixing and reclamation contracts for the new third runway. On the airport tunnel contract, AAHK notified an NEC compensation event to China State to implement a ‘dynamic safety performance programme’ to encourage all project staff and workers to collaborate on safety.

The resulting award-winning collaborative safety culture programme was successfully implemented from July 2018 to December 2021. It showed how trust and communication can foster positive collaboration and working relationships across various parties while minimising barriers arising from formality and customary practice.

Creating a ‘trust loop’

The programme focused on building a safety culture across the contract parties and supply chain, for which NEC-inspired trust, collaboration and effective communication were crucial. Operational aspects were targeted through a customised behavioural engagement and observation programme, with other supporting programmes used to build the safety culture. This required substantial commitment, consistency, data processing and decision making while preserving and respecting confidentiality.

The efforts led to the creation of a ‘trust loop’ through the behavioural engagement and observation programme. Selected observers from the site management team, including AAHK, actively and positively engaged and talked to workers on site. After some initial wariness, the workers gradually opened up about their views and concerns, such as the need for cleaner toilets, short breaks during hot days and better eating facilities.

The gist of all comments was collected, reviewed and followed up on a weekly basis by the site management team, ultimately resulting in real improvements to working conditions on site. A trust loop was thus created: the workers understood their feedback was consistently heard and reacted to in a timely manner, which in turn reinforced trust and encouraged workers to talk more openly without retribution.

As the trust loop improved through the encouragement of the observers, workers attained ‘psychological safety’ and the confidence to raise more sensitive issues, such as site safety and other health and wellbeing issues. This created an environment where safety was regularly discussed and deliberated on site among frontline personnel: in other words, a genuine safety culture.

The worker−observer feedback process, weekly review meetings and implementation stages required prompt communication and collaboration by the client, contractor, and subcontractors. Such a collaborative process deviated from the typical hierarchy of client, contractor and subcontractor, where meetings usually revolve around construction progress and a cursory review of site safety.

After considerable effort, the results of the behavioural engagement and observation programme provided the mechanism for all parties to make progress and collaborate in a psychologically safe environment, where everyone could speak freely and towards a common purpose. In the long term this improved client, contractor and subcontractor relationships, enabling parties to work together with mutual trust.

Resolving conflicts

An example of this can be shown from an instance two years into the programme, where one of the subcontractors was tasked with building formwork for a box culvert beside a deep trench, which naturally reduced the size of the work platform. The client required all work platforms to be at least 400 mm wide and have safety fences, but the subcontractor said this was impossible given the works needed to be done. The working space was already less than 400 mm and adding fencing would limit the platform width even further. In any event the platform was surrounded by formwork, making falling unlikely.

Traditionally, the subcontractor would have been pressed to implement the rules to the letter. But in this case the client, contractor and subcontractor came together to develop a solution, which involved the workers being attached to safety ropes to prevent injuries from falling.

The above case is a perfect example of planned work versus actual work, where the rules set in the contract stage are not always suitable for the actual working environment. NEC deviates from traditional contracts by empowering parties to make changes that achieve mutual benefits for all parties by replacing uncertainty with certainty.

However, such collaboration is only possible if the parties have mutual trust. NEC requires parties to act with mutual trust, and on this contract that trust was reinforced through the collaborative safety culture programme, which helped to build positive collaboration and effective communication within the NEC contract environment.

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