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Case study

Allied Bakeries: table talk

An award-winning “stop the clock” initiative that cost £250 has helped to cut accident rates at a London bread factory. 

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Words: Lucie Ponting

The phrase “turning back the clock” has special meaning for staff at Allied Bakeries’ manufacturing site in Walthamstow, east London. The clock in question is an integral part of an innovative “safety matters” table installed on the factory floor to encourage hazard reporting and reverse a rise in the number of minor accidents after a new bread plant opened.

The idea for the table – which acts as an informal hub where workers can report hazards quickly and easily, obtain information and discuss safety issues – came directly from staff and was based on a similar “quality matters” table that drove production improvements.

The digital clock, which is reset every time an individual records a hazard, was an addition specifically intended to keep reporting at the forefront of workers’ minds.  

“We immediately saw a big spike in reporting after the table and clock went live,” says Chris Bulgen, manufacturing frontline manager at the site. “This has dramatically increased the number of hazards identified and has helped reduce the manufacturing department’s accident rate.”

The “safety matters” initiative cost just £250 and started in spring 2015 at the Walthamstow site, which makes about 2.3 million loaves a week, mainly under the Kingsmill brand. There are two plants, a warehouse and a distribution depot on the site, which employs 200 to 250 people, 98 of whom work on the manufacturing side.

Equal footing

There were four bread plants originally but Allied replaced three of these with a high-speed unit in 2013.

“Our existing plant had a low-accident culture,” says Bulgen. “But when we installed the new one and went through commissioning, the accident rate went up. As we dug deeper, we found it was mainly small cuts from rough edges on the new equipment, which was all stainless steel. What we also noticed was that, though we’d had an efficient hazard reporting process before, when we’d brought in new people to operate the modern plant, we hadn’t done enough to encourage them to report.”

In the background, Allied’s senior management team had been developing strategic and tactical plans, which included a call to better engage and empower people at all levels of the organisation. Part of this involved departments setting up safety teams to help workers “own” safety.

“We formed our manufacturing safety team, which consisted of volunteers from the shopfloor – at least one person from every shift,” says Bulgen. “We asked the guys to get involved; no one was dragged in and they all wanted to make a difference.”

As the guys get into the frame of mind of reporting, the range of hazards they identify broadens

To address the spike in accidents, the team suggested adopting an approach that was already working well in the company’s national push on bread quality. This included a hub in the middle of the bakery, the quality matters table.

“It had become the place the guys went to check bread, look for specs and make their assessments, and they were comfortable with that,” says Bulgen. “So they said, ‘look, the quality matters table works, so why don’t we have the same thing for safety’.”

The team considered different names for the table but eventually decided to use a similar name to demonstrate that quality and safety had parity. “Our table is right next to the quality one,” says Bulgen. “We wanted to bring the two together on the same footing.”

Reset button

“When we were deciding what should be on the table one guy said, ‘why don’t we put a clock on there so we can time how long it takes for a hazard to go up?’,” Bulgen explains. “We used it as a bit of an attention grabber. Everyone wanted to see it.”

The aim is to report at least one hazard each shift, so the clock never reaches 12 hours. The clock also generated interest from visitors to the site. “Everyone passing asks, ‘what’s that about?’, which allows us to open a safety discussion. We found the guys really bought into it. They didn’t want to see the clock go over 12 hours, so we saw a big increase in reporting, which has pretty much been sustained.”

After the table and clock were installed, average weekly hazard reports rose from three to 13. In 2016, there were 31 a week on average.

The table also includes hazard information for each shift, the site’s safety pledge, hazard and accident books, and space for safety briefings and conversations. “We want it to be a place where people talk to each other,” Bulgen says.

The team thought about how to entice people to the table without any hint of obligation. Stopping the clock was an incentive but the table’s position in the middle of the factory helped.

“What we’ve found is that if you take people off the [factory] floor into an office they immediately feel less comfortable talking,” notes Bulgen. “But because it’s out in the factory where the guys walk around and chat, they’re happy to stop there and feel free to talk about anything that has come up.”

Manufacturing technician Lee Hands, who is a member of the safety team, reinforces this point: “It’s always visible; people haven’t got to go into an office or upstairs,” he says. “It’s in their environment and they don’t need to go out of their way. They’re there on the shopfloor talking in their team; my only role is driving it a bit more and providing information where necessary.”

Some of the best safety conversations and ideas we’ve had have started here

Building confidence

When the table was introduced, the safety team was on hand to help staff through the simplified reporting process, which built up their confidence and empowered them to take the initiative and deal with any hazards.

Hands, who is also his shift’s safety representative, helped to brief his colleagues on how the table could be used. He says the approach, particularly its visibility, has encouraged teamwork: “People get a sense that, if they are providing input as individuals, the team is also benefiting and that spreads out to the company as a whole. They can see it’s making a difference.”

He also feels staff are now more aware of the hazards around them and can observe that change does happen after they report something. “Because the clock is visual and people can see the time moving on, they do tend to look out for hazards they might not otherwise see,” he says. “They start to think it’s been a long time since a report, so they’ll take time to have a look around. This doesn’t mean they’ll find something because obviously they won’t always, but it makes sure they’re aware.”

“What we generally find,” adds Bulgen, “is that, as the guys get into the frame of mind of reporting, the range of hazards they identify broadens. We had a lot of basic things come through to start with, such as a spillage on the floor with slip potential. These are things that are easily resolved and we encourage them to own that and deal with it. As they become more comfortable, they start to see different types of hazard, perhaps loose wiring on a motor; those that have potential for more serious injury or need more expertise to fix.”

As confidence has grown, staff have started to report hazards outside the bakery building. “One guy recently came in and talked to me about a contractor parked across a fire exit,” says Bulgen. “He said he’d asked him to move his truck. This was outside his normal working environment, but he’d had the confidence to spot it and tackle it.”

An employee originally from Turkey has become one of the department’s best hazard reporters. “English and particularly writing were not a strong point for him,” Bulgen says. “He’d always been safety-aware but we were never getting the best out of him in terms of reporting because he was self-conscious that he struggled in English. Under the new system – out in his environment on his shopfloor – he is now more at ease and more confident to report.”

Making conversation

The safety team regularly does safety briefings at the table. They might have a simple document with them, or talk about the last accident or what has gone on during a particular shift. “Some of the best safety conversations and ideas we’ve had have started here where people feel relaxed and happy to talk,” says Bulgen.

The hazard book is updated as soon as problems are addressed. “The guys can easily see the hazards they and their colleagues are reporting, what the feedback is and how we have closed things off,” Bulgen adds. “They’ve got to see we’re doing something about them. Some of them work nights, so we perhaps don’t see them for 12 to 16 days. But when they come in, they can catch up, look at the books and get the feedback.”

Initially, there was a reduction of about 40% in the department’s accident rate. “Looking at the latest figures, so far we’ve not had an accident this year [2016],” says Bulgen, “and we are now into the third period. Before, we were probably looking at one accident each period, so year-on-year we’re probably two down on this time last year, which we hope is a reflection of the number of hazards being reported and cleared up before something happens.” Most of the reduction in the accident rate so far has been the result of identifying sharp edges on the new equipment. “We’ve done a lot of work around the manual side of how people interact with plant,” Bulgen explains.

Though the idea is to progressively reduce the number of hazards in the working environment, he acknowledges there will always be those that need reporting: “Ours is an ever-changing business with different products and ranges. As we introduce or modify a process or product, there will be new hazards and different things we have to do to address them. We obviously work with a lot of moving parts and always need to be driving safe behaviours.”

No competition

In October, the Allied project was named overall winner at the International Food and Drink Health and Safety Awards 2016, organised by IOSH’s Food and Drink Industries Group. The award included a prize of £750, which the team plans to invest in further enhancing the table.

“At the moment, the guys are still interested in the clock and it still draws the eye of those who haven’t been with us before,” says Bulgen. But he is aware that interest is likely to fade over time, and acknowledges the importance of, literally, “bringing new ideas to the table”.

The team is already talking about what to do next. One idea is to buy computer tablets to put on the table. Currently, the safety team takes the recording books and inputs the reports on to a database that maps hazards on every Allied site.

“If we had tablets, reporters could get more involved – putting the hazards straight on to the system,” suggests Bulgen. “It’s another way of drawing them in; it would be an easy way to drive greater interaction with the process.”

“Our idea is to report more electronically,” adds Hands. “Some people do still struggle to write in the English language but everyone is used to smart phones and iPads for messaging. If they have a tablet, they can just type the information in.”

Other Allied sites and departments – as well as customers, suppliers and competitors – have shown an interest in how the tables work. “We’ve sent off details of where we got the clock to a lot of people internally and externally,” says Bulgen.

For his part, Hands would recommend the tables to colleagues and friends in their workplaces. “It has definitely worked within our business,” he says. “We’re not seeing as many accidents, especially as many cuts.”

Another indication of the initiative’s success is that Bulgen has been asked to deliver a presentation on safety tables to a major competitor. This came about after two health and safety directors from the company expressed interest at the awards ceremony.

“Safety is always about people,” he emphasises. “It’s not a competitive issue but about sharing ideas.”

 

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