Babcock: leading health and safety in the nuclear environment

For more than a century, Babcock has been delivering bespoke, highly-skilled engineering services in the UK and around the world in four market sectors: marine, land, aviation and nuclear.

Since 2006, Babcock has been managing the majority of the Royal Navy’s submarine and warship support programmes from its facilities. Recently the company embarked on a 10-year strategy, which aims to transform the company’s business model in line with its fast changing work environment. Craig Lockhart, managing director, Naval Marine at Babcock, speaks to Anna Ryland about the role a positive health and safety culture plays in this challenging environment.

What are your responsibilities in relation to the Royal Navy’s marine portfolio

Babcock’s naval marine portfolio is quite complex but there’s an easy way I get my head around it. Everything that floats and has a Royal Navy customer is my responsibility; everything that used to float, but still has a Royal Navy customer, is also my responsibility and everything that’s about to float and has a Royal Navy customer is my responsibility. All in so far as Babcock has the contracted responsibility.

Craig Lockhart, managing director, Naval Marine at Babcock

Babcock operates several sites, with Devonport Dockyard being the largest. Here, we undertake what we call ‘deep maintenance’, i.e. refits of both the SSN (hunter killer) submarines and the SSBN (ballistic missile) submarines, as well as major warship refits. I am also responsible for Babcock’s submarine and naval base support at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde where you can compare our involvement there to the work of a Formula One pit crew. The submarines come in, we give it a quick service, restore the platform and send them out to sea again. We are also assembling the new Royal Navy aircraft carriers at our Rosyth facilities and offshore patrol vessels for the Irish navy in our Appledore Shipyard in North Devon. So it’s quite a diverse portfolio.

While we look after the operational submarines on behalf of the Royal Navy, such as those in the Vanguard, Trafalgar and the Astute class, we also decommission submarines, which have come to the end of their useful life, i.e. HMS Valiant, HMS Warspite, HMS Swiftsure, HMS Churchill and HMS Resolution class. The plan is to decommission and dispose of the legacy platforms here at Devonport as well as in our Rosyth facility, but this won’t be fully complete until we’ve got an interim and longer-term storage solution agreed with the UK government.

  What are your main challenges at present

First of all, it’s the complexity of the task itself. We are refitting ships and submarines for the Royal Navy, which means that we take the entire internals out, we revalidate the hulls, including a lot of fabrication and steelwork, and then put the internals back in before recommissioning the ships and submarines to full operational capability. Sometimes, where the nuclear programme requires, we take the top off the reactor, refuel it and fully commission the systems again.

There is a lot of vessel support going on at any one time across our sites and we are focused on the associated movement, logistics and environmental factors we are dealing with, particularly as most of our facilities are close to waterways and estuaries. Ensuring that robust environmental and pollution control measures are in place is an integral part of our operations.

On any given working day up to 10,000 people could be working at the Devonport site. Photograph: Photograph: Babcock

Therefore, we operate some complex activities that require robust governance and processes. They are regulated by both civil and defence nuclear licensing and authorising requirements that help us apply the nuclear controls to all our business activities. The management task is to interpret these arrangements and make them user-friendly for the people who work within our processes and procedures. In this way, all employees or people working within our operations, regardless of whether they work on the Devonport site, Rosyth or Clyde, are afforded the same duty of care with the same simplicity of management arrangements. For me, that’s probably the biggest challenge.

Our people are at the heart of all our activities. We employ around 6,500 people in our naval marine operations. 4,500 of them work at the Devonport site alone. In fact, if we include the Royal Navy’s and the Ministry of Defence’s personnel and ship’s crews, we have up to 10,000 people at this site on any given working day.

  How is the responsibility for health and safety distributed at Babcock Marine, Devonport

At the top, we have a corporate safety steering group chaired by the chief executive of Babcock. Each managing director is tasked with ensuring that the highest level of safety standards are observed at each of their sites. We have a safety department,  which monitors industrial safety and compliance on each site, as well as an independent assurance team who can advise the board of necessary changes to controls and arrangements. It can check that the things that we say that we’re going to do are being done. It gives me an independent insight into the organisation and its safety culture.

  How do you empower line managers and staff to get them involved in health and safety

I think you would struggle to find any employee in Babcock who would say that Babcock doesn’t take safety very seriously. For example, every two weeks, we have a safety seminar involving the whole senior management community. Every Monday, the entire workforce takes time out for safety. We provide a number of tool box talks themes for these conversations. These sessions are often focused on what has happened on the site and what is happening in the world at present. We might review some serious incidents that have taken place within other organisations and discuss the lessons learned from them.

We also have an event review board, which I chair. It meets if we have a major event on the site or if someone has been injured or we have had ‘a significant near miss’. We’ll ask the individuals involved in that event to describe what happened on the day, what their thought process was and what influenced their decision making. Then, we’ll try to learn lessons from the incident and set some actions that will put us in a better position in the future.

Do people feel empowered? That’s always a moot point. I think every organisation struggles to measure it. However we try to test it through employee surveys. In fact, health and safety received one of the highest scores in our recent employee survey, which is a good indicator of whether the workforce feel it is being taken seriously at Babcock.

By the nature of what we do, we can’t eliminate risk completely, but we can try to mitigate it as much as we can. Photograph: Babcock

  Does the nature of your business, particularly its nuclear element, contribute to the fact that people here take safety seriously

Certainly, the nuclear industry does drive a higher degree of compliance and regulation. We are very aware of our responsibilities not only to our workforce but also to the wider community living outside the dockyard wall in the city of Plymouth. Our employees are mums, dads, brothers and sisters of people living in Plymouth and the surrounding areas and we want them to be reassured of how seriously we take these responsibilities.

We have emergency response plans in place and they are closely integrated with those of the local council, police constabularies and fire brigades. We regularly test these plans and this drives a level of attention and compliance in the company that is probably higher than average.

  What are the key drivers for your team in relation to health and safety

I think first and foremost, it is keeping employees and those working on-site safe. Our number one responsibility is to ensure that every employee and visitor to our sites and operations leave safely. And yes, of course, we want to maintain our reputation for viewing and managing health and safety across our organisation very seriously. This is all underpinned by the behaviours of our people and the culture of our organisation. We create a culture and an environment in which we’re able to look after people’s health, as well as their safety. It is very easy to forget the health aspect.

The world is turning its attention to the wider challenges and opportunities of employing a diverse workforce, representative of the communities we live in and recruit from. I think this is especially challenging in what have been seen, until recently, as very male-oriented occupations like engineering and defence. It is still early days for us but we have established various network groups within the organisation, including a Pride Network and Women’s Network where anyone can go along and ask questions, listen to experiences and offer their support. We are now viewed as a leading and progressive organisation in the South West promoting the diversity agenda. Mental health is another issue closely related to this agenda, with a lot of stigma still attached to it and we are trying to punch through that.

  What factors prevent boards of directors from getting actively involved in health and safety

There’s absolutely no excuse for senior management not to be involved in safety and it remains our number one priority. But what gets in the way? Time agendas, busy schedules, priorities, programmes and other distractions. In Babcock, we have an active leadership programme. Each director is encouraged and will be measured on getting out into the business, visiting our sites and having health and safety conversations with their staff. The feedback has been really positive; we hear that it gives managers a true understanding of the challenges our people face.

  How can a director inspire his managers and workforce to adopt a positive health and safety culture

By walking the walk. It really is about that visible engagement, doing what you promised you are going to do.

  How would you describe the safety culture at Babcock

Our safety culture is still in transition, although it’s getting better. Because of the nature of our environment, we still have incidents, we still have injuries. One person being injured is still one person too many. In Babcock we support rail networks, we support airports, we fix ships, we refuel nuclear submarines, we manage large scale nuclear decommissioning programmes. We are a critical asset businesses and by the nature of what we do, we can’t eliminate risk completely. We can only try to mitigate it as much as we can.

  What are the benefits of this approach for the company’s employees and the local community

In addition to improved business performance, reputation, relationships and social responsibilities, it most importantly creates a working environment in which employees feel safe and where they enjoy working. We encourage our teams to have a bit of fun as well. We run different community events, such as Family Days, during which our staff bring their kids to work and we get them on board ships etc.

It’s also about understanding our work environment. We provide available and capable platforms on which the armed forces go to sea. We couldn’t take this responsibility any more seriously; our people are very proud to be an integral part of the defence of the United Kingdom.

My challenge as the managing director is to create an environment in which people enjoy working and feel safe. Hence, our cultural transformation programme. Devonport Dockyard has been here since 1690. For more than 300 years, people have been working here, more recently carrying out vital engineering work to support the Royal Navy. I would like people to see it less as a dockyard and more as an organisation, which is vibrant, offers careers and provides a safe environment. There are families in Plymouth where three, four, five or even six generations have worked at the dockyard. They can see that the emphasis on safety is much greater now than it has ever been and that it is a much better place to work.

  Would senior executives be better health and safety leaders if they believed are an enabler for a company

There were recent newspaper reports that said that authorities were considering banning nuts in all public places because 200,000 people have nut allergies. While this is an important issue for those affected, such stories give rise to the wider public perception that health and safety has gone mad. Sometimes, health and safety seems to lack common sense, but I strongly believe that the health and safety message has to be continually refreshed and its importance brought down to an individual level. It is down to myself, the board and the senior managers of this company to be inspirational, to be aspirational and to truly believe in our health and safety message.

  How are you going to do this

By getting out. I spend a lot of time out on the site speaking to people. These conversations help me understand what really goes on out there. I can’t fix it all but I try to remove some of those constraints that appear to get in the way and, in the process, I connect with my staff. I am here to make a difference and I’m not going to give up on that.

  It is said that leadership is not about procedures but about people. The safest and healthiest companies are those in which leadership is shared and distributed throughout the workforce. What do you think

I couldn’t agree more. When I launched our new naval marine business plan in April, I stood on the stage for nearly two weeks at different locations and talked to the people about the evolution of the company, why we have developed a strategy and business plan and what it means for them. The Devonport board members stood on the stage with me and had an hour-long Q&A session with our employees. Two weeks later we took every employee through one of 724 facilitated workshops to ensure that they understood our plans and they had their say. Our 88 strategy ambassadors, all volunteers, facilitated those workshops. From the feedback we received, we learnt that for the first time, people felt genuinely engaged in our business strategy.

Throughout this process, we tried to communicate to our workforce that we needed to evolve as a business in response to our fast changing work environment. Our customers continue to operate in an increasingly challenging environment, while technology is advancing at such a pace that if we don’t keep up with it, our business model will expire. This means different skills and different jobs. We will have to become efficient and use more sophisticated technology, as well as remaining a safe work environment. So instead of always taking ships and submarines apart, we will be transferring data, using computer analytics to predict the performance of ships and submarines, while changing our risk environment at the same time.

We have committed to our workforce that over the next 10 to 20 years, we’re going to focus on 10 campaigns and the change will be evolutionary.

Improving the performance of our customer’s assets in terms of availability and reliability will cause us to transform our support processes and our working environment. If we can do this while making our organisation a ‘zero harm company’, then we can look back on what has been a successful strategy.

Aligning the directors’ objectives with the organisation’s objectives was key and publishing this in the strategy document, available to everyone in the company, was important to us. Now, I think, we can say that we are all marching in the same direction and, in future years, we will be checking how well we are progressing towards our goals.