Sipke Mennes: Safety of work crews on major industrial projects

Sipke Mennes talks about what it’s like to be responsible for the safety of large crews of workers on a Shell industrial construction project.

Today … what it’s like to be responsible for the safety of large crews of workers on an industrial construction project – the Shell Singapore Eastern Petrochemicals Complex project, completed in early 2010.

Sipke Mennes: The key is genuine interest in the guys who use their hands on the tools and do the work for us. It’s the daily engagement that you have with the guys and trying to understand what makes them tick.

Sipke Mennes told EarthSky, that over its course, the Shell project in Singapore employed more than 55,000 workers and contractors from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia … and it was Mennes’ job to keep all these workers, from these diverse cultures, safe. Mennes said they used long-term, big-picture techniques like setting safety targets – along with smaller scale techniques such as short ‘toolbox meetings’ on site to go over equipment and procedures.

Sipke Mennes: So the guys coming through the gate, they get dressed. They get ready. They go to the toolbox meeting. Their mindset is ready for safety. And then after the toolbox meeting, with the right mindset, with the right instructions, with the right information, they start the job. When there is a significant change in the work environment, because a rainstorm has come in and things have become slippery, then we have another toolbox meeting and talk about the change in the hazards.

He said managers would engage in what he called ‘storytelling,’ where they’d share the sometimes tragic stories of people they know injured on the job and lessons learned. Mennes credits these actions with breaking safety records of nearly 40 million hours worked without injury. In the Shell Singapore Eastern Petrochemicals Complex project, Mennes helped develop what he called “industrial theater,” with 22 professional Singaporan actors.

Sipke Mennes: It is first theater, and after that there will be a short workshop with the workers, where the emotional learning that took place during the theater is further embedded through the cognitive learning with questions and answers and the dialog with the workers. We really managed to reach the workers through industrial theater in a way I’ve never seen before in any other project.

Mennes said Shell had been in Singapore for about ten years before the project began, which helped them know what he called “the base level” of safety. In other words, knowledge of the culture and of the people is essential on a large project like this one, where many different workers from many different countries will ultimately be involved. Mennes also said good leadership is key to construction site safety.

Sipke Mennes: Leadership in safety has to do with passion and being really strongly committed with respect for people, enjoying the engagement with workers, being on site with workers, and also to have a good level of organization, to be able to manage a large group of people. Peak manpower was about 15,000 people, and I always found a great pleasure, if not in meeting with all these people personally, at least relating to a large group of the people.

Mennes described what he called a “genuine interest in the guys who use their hands on the tools and do the work for us” as key to construction safety,

Sipke Mennes: It’s the daily engagement that you have with the guys and trying to understand what makes them tick. It’s respect for the guys, working hard with your team to create an environment of respect, looking after workers’ accommodations, the quality of their meals, their health and general welfare. In general, in a project like this, we managed that around five focus areas. The first one is what we already talked about a little bit, was on leadership. The other important area is training. When you get such a large workforce coming through your project in a period of three years, you have to put enormous effort into training. In addition to training you have to communicate, and communicate very well, and communicate consistently with the workforce about the hazards, but also about the rules you have on your project. And then I mentioned as the fourth focus area, workers welfare.

Mennes said that the safety team identified activities with the largest number of hazards. They called them the Twelve Life-Critical Construction Activities. And they gave the workers and the supervisors special training around those special construction activities, like lifting, safe entry into confined space, or driving, and they gave them special training about those Life Critical Construction Activities. He said another key was setting targets.

Sipke Mennes: Early in the project, we agreed that we wanted to be among the ten percent best of Shell in the previous five years. But also, we made a check on a global basis with major contractors, what has been the ten percent best among major projects, say from Exxon Mobil, Total, and other major oil companies. So we used targets, to be among the 10 percent best in the world. And that was extremely helpful for the project, because the moment we came close to the target or we drifted slowly over the target, I really was able to attract attention of management and got all people standing behind me to get that right and to work extremely hard, on site, with the workers, with the contractors, to reverse the downward trend and to bring things back to that challenging target.

He said there is no substitute for personal commitment.

Sipke Mennes: You need the person to believe that you can make it. A really committed person brings an energy, a passion, and excitement that is very difficult to generate if you are just complying in a pedestrian fashion. It is the will to get there early in the morning, to be with the guys, on site, at seven o’clock, and join them in their toolbox meeting. That is what I call ‘passion for the job,’ the commitment for the job to get it right.

Mennes explained why construction and contractor safety is personally important to him.

Sipke Mennes: It’s important to me because I like people. And I do respect the people who come to work on a construction job. These guys, coming from all places, from many different places in the world, they come there to do a job, to do a good job. But they want to go back home to their families as healthy as they arrived with us, and hopefully somewhat richer, richer in experience, but also somewhat richer financially.

Our thanks today to Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.

Jorge Salazar