From the road less travelled

file000555565239-Analysis showed that 82-94% of our accidents and incidents were caused by ‘unsafe acts’. So the question was ‘how can we get our workers more motivated to do the right thing?’

Phil Stephenson, the Vice president for Health, Safety, Loss prevention & Security at Newmont Mining Corporation, had just started describing their journey to improving safety. For a few years Newmont Mining had noted that they were unable to take their safety records to the next level. They had reached a plateau. And now they had identified their workforce as the main obstacle.

It was the first presentation at a mining safety conference I recently attended in Perth, Australia. To me, Mr Stephenson’s introduction was painfully traditional. I took out my computer to begin ‘multi-tasking’.

-We used a change management program that has been designed specifically to create motivation through engagement. We recognised that change is difficult and often only temporary, so we needed something that could give true and long lasting effects.

Typical, I thought. Another top-down, manipulative, imperialistic way to get workers to dance to management ideals. If only I could get my internet connection to work!

-This program was based on the idea that the best way to get engagement is to ask people what the problem is. So we asked them to tell stories – positive or negative stories about their experience of carrying out work safely.

All of a sudden, I had no idea where Mr Stephenson’s presentation was heading. Was it a trick to give workers the impression that management was interested in working conditions? Or did Phil and his managerial colleagues really want to know what was going on inside Newmont Mining?

-We got 13,000 stories.

13,000 stories about situations in which people either struggled with safety, or had stepped up to save the day!? And this in a company with one of the best accident records in the industry. Numbers fascinating enough to cast serious doubts on Heinrich’s accident pyramid.

Mr Stephenson shared a few of the stories they had gathered. One problem they wanted to address was vehicle accidents. It had been noted that bus drivers, transporting their workers to and from sites, sometimes drove faster than the speed limits. How could bus drivers become more motivated to follow the rules? Well, it turned out it was not really the right question to ask.

One bus driver had shared what it was like having 40-50 workers banging their hard hats against the seat in front of them when they wanted the driver to go faster. Imagine the noise, what the bus driver felt like, the resulting psychological pressure. What would you do? What can you do?

As Newmont Mining learned about this and other situations, the questions changed. No longer was the problem to make the bus driver or workers in general motivated to be safe. They were already perfectly motivated. The question became: What did workers need to deal with the pressures, difficulties and variations – sources of variability few managers had any idea existed before hearing the stories.

During the break I had the opportunity to chat with Mr Stephenson. I told how surprising I found his presentation. They had started with unsafe acts, to get people motivated, but in addressing these issues, they had stumbled on something else – a simpler way to organise safety. Phil smiled, seemingly in agreement with my summary.

-The best thing we as managers could do to improve safety was to get out of the way. People want to be safe. And our workers now come up with solutions that work for them. Should we suggest the same things, they would never have been accepted. Our role is to support, to provide the opportunities, to free up resources needed to deal with situations we know too little about.

Asking Phil to validate the content of this post, he added that many leaders have found this journey difficult. Because:

  • “When they read the stories they are always surprised, and often a little embarrassed, to find out what is going on at their mine site.
  • It gets even more painful for them to explore the concept that their people are not “errant”, and that the vast bulk of less-safe behaviours are a product of the workplace we have created.
  • Then of course we are asking them to let go of the steering-wheel and let the people who really know what is going on to build their own plan – based on the premise that the collective wisdom of the workforce far exceeds the collective wisdom of management.
  • Lastly, we ask them to endorse and actively support a plan that somebody else has developed, and make the changes required to foster the Vital Behaviours. This is more of a servant-leadership role that many of our leaders have not been asked to play before. Some get it, some take longer to understand how this all works, and some just don’t have a clue. Having spent 14 years in operational management roles I can empathize with them – being a line manager is not easy.”

One year into this project, Newmont Mining’s accident and incident rates have begun to go down. The plateau is giving in. The jury may be out for some time on whether or not this is attributable to organising safety differently. In the meantime, the engagement and bottom-up ownership of safety is likely to be the envy of many.


  1. Stefan Nielsen Reply

    This is very nice. They are heading in the right direction. But I do think this not only difficult for line managers but also top management (business people) due to the fact, that this way is not what they learn at be Business College.

  2. Shawn Callahan Reply

    One of the great insights we have got from working with stories is that when you get a group of leaders interacting with the anecdotes they move beyond just thinking it, they feel it and this really motivates action.

    13,000 stories is an amazing number to collect. We use our storybank to sift through large numbers of stories. It would be good to hear how they managed to work with such a number.

    Excellent post that really shows how stories can make a difference to safety.

  3. Rosa Carrillo Reply

    This is a great example of how we can collect data about what is going on in the workplace. I would love to know more about how they structured the follow up activities. 13,000 is a lot of data. How did they support and resource the employees to set priorities and implement solutions?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *