EPC-UK: committed to fitness
The commercial explosives firm’s wellbeing initiatives aim to support its ageing and hard-to-reach workers both mentally and physically.
For EPC-UK, a company with a distributed, ageing, mainly male workforce of nearly 250, the management of occupational ill-health risk is vital.
As a leading manufacturer and supplier of commercial explosives (see "EPC-UK" box below) for the UK mining, quarrying and aggregate sectors, EPC’s employees are scattered over eight locations from Shetland to Cornwall and their work is demanding.
Remote workers responsible for blasting and drilling can spend long periods on their own, while drivers ferrying hazardous materials up and down the country are often out early and late navigating difficult road conditions.
“All the roles require certain characteristics for lone working: you need to be happy in your own company to be a driller or a driver,” says EPC-UK’s managing director Ben Williams, at the company’s head office in Alfreton near Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
“[Drillers] go into work at 6.30am at a quarry site where all they are required to do is sign in at the weighbridge, so they may meet a colleague there, if they are lucky. Otherwise, they go straight to their drilling rig. They may not see anybody for six to eight hours.”
Remote workers make up roughly 50% of EPC-UK’s workforce so preventing any perception of neglect is important to safeguarding their health and wellbeing.
“Communications on a quarrying site can be really poor,” Williams says.
“They might have a phone but 3G may not be available or there may be no phone signal. Even though our lone worker policy will entail regular calls – we’ve got trackers on vehicles, on drilling equipment and explosives equipment – the challenge comes from having employees out on the road all the time. From a business perspective, I want to engage them on a human level, not just a work level.”
EPC-UK is one of 40 worldwide subsidiaries owned by the EPC Groupe, a family business founded in 1893 and specialising in explosives, demolition, drilling and blasting.
EPC Groupe began its UK operations in 1905 when it bought Bramble Island at Great Oakley near Harwich, Essex, as an explosives manufacturing operation. In the late 1940s, it added Alfreton in Derbyshire, which “became the main manufacturing site because of the coal mines in the area and supplying them with explosives products”, says EPC-UK’s managing director, Ben Williams.
Alfreton is also home to EPC-UK’s head office, which houses a learning and development centre. The Alfreton factory and Great Oakley, which has a licensed explosives dock, are both top-tier sites under the UK’s Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations with bonded warehousing to store up to 250 tonnes of material.
The UK arm has six other sites, including those in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. EPC-UK employs about 80 staff at the Alfreton sites, and 35 at Great Oakley. Around 120 are commercial drivers who transport the explosives products nationwide and there are 26 drilling rig operators.
The company’s UK services include manufacturing and supplying commercial explosives and services for the mining, cement, aggregates, civil engineering and defence industries. A key growth area has been its explosives training courses, which are accredited by the Mineral Products Qualifications Council.
The EPC Additives division at Great Oakley is one of the largest European producers of 2-ethly hexyl nitrate (2EHN), a diesel fuel additive used as a cetane improver to enhance engine performance. The site has the capacity to produce 45,000 tonnes of 2EHN a year. A licensed dock enables EPC-UK to import its own raw materials every six weeks. The licence allows the company to import just under 100 tonnes, including explosives materials.
The business has been rocked by three suicides involving staff or their family members over the past five years.
In response to this, five senior managers were put through Mental Health England’s one-day Mental Health First Aid Champions course in mid-February. There are also plans this year to qualify 12 volunteers as mental health first aiders.
“Work is just part of stress,” he says. “A lot of stress appears in work because it’s the easy place to let go of all of it because you can’t let go of it at home, especially if you are the breadwinner. You want everyone at home to think everything is under control. We find that the issues start to arise when they come to work.
“I don’t think you can do something like this until you have an open and transparent culture because you are starting a conversation that gets quite sensitive and personal.”
Williams says the company’s last suicide was an individual based at one of the further flung locations and “no one saw the signs”.
To raise awareness, EPC-UK has set up a confidential helpline and increased occupational health support. Williams says: “If I ask Julie Wootton, head of human resources and information technology, how many people are being supported in the business she knows what I mean by that. I don’t ask who they are; she just tells me they are being supported and that’s all I need to know. I don’t think we’ve made enough effort as an organisation to let people know they can have that support.”
Training mental health champions and first aiders is the latest stage in EPC-UK’s “Commit to be fit” wellbeing programme. It was launched in April 2017 to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the Workplace Wellbeing Charter, a national workplace health, safety and wellbeing accreditation programme launched by Public Health England, whose eight standards, including mental health and physical activity, form the audit against which businesses are judged (bit.ly/2KOnFAi).
Everybody reaches a plateau no matter how active their job is. But do they eat the right fuel to do that job and do they get enough sleep?
“Our culture is such that if we see that we can take a lead, we will do, especially in our industry sector because it’s not big,” Williams says. “The explosives industry is made up of four or five companies. We also want to make sure people are in the right frame of mind when they are handling what we sell.”
Nutrition and daily physical activity were two of the three focal points of the programme’s first year. But the one that arguably made the biggest impression with employees was the focus on sleep. Williams brought in Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep consultant, who attended the managers’ conference launch and then toured the other sites and explained how sleep affects people.
“I think he had a big impact on everyone, all the remote workers, including those employees who handle explosives and get up at four or five in the morning and drive to a site,” says Williams.
“He made us reflect on our sleep patterns and how they dictate your next day.”
Employees can measure how much sleep they get and its quality by using a Garmin wrist-worn tracker linked to a mobile app on work smartphones. More importantly, they can use the data to see how a poor night’s sleep might have affected their performance at work. “It measures the drop in your heart rate,” Williams says. “It measures the heart rate at intervals. Apparently, you have five cycles in a good night’s sleep and it picks them up.”
Most of the commercial drivers have overnight sleeper cabs in their vehicles. Williams explains that part of the challenge is instilling the self-discipline in them to get enough sleep so that they are in the best frame of mind before they get back behind the wheel.
“They don’t have to wake up and immediately drive,” he says. “What we are saying is, ‘If you know what your parcel of sleep is, then you can get up and do some exercise and then you can start your day’s work’.”
Dr Stanley advised that driving between 2am and 7am should be avoided because of the dip in concentration caused by the body’s circadian cycle (see “Clocking on”, IOSH Magazine, December 2017, bit.ly/2ETYXz4).
Such a restriction isn’t practical at present for EPC-UK, some of whose drivers have to set off early. Mindful of the risks, Wootton says that management is considering an offer from the sleep consultant to study its business model and how it might affect drivers with very early starts.
Part of the inspiration for “Commit to be fit” was personal, admits Williams. In early 2016, a family member was coping with health problems and he wanted to encourage them to be more physically active. To help them measure their progress he bought a Fitbit wrist-worn exercise tracker. It was a “lightbulb” moment. “I thought it would be a great idea to encourage people in work to start thinking about how fit they are,” he says.
Williams tasked Wootton with finding a cost-effective corporate solution that would give employees something of value. “It would be something [to make them] say, ‘One, yes the company really recognises that my health and fitness is important and, two, here’s a tool to measure my improvements’,” he says.
Wootton found the German arm of Garmin which produces a personal tracking system for corporate wellness programmes. Every EPC-UK employee was given the device and they can sync the data on the move.
“It gives you a snapshot of what you’ve done that day,” says Williams. “It shows the cardio[vascular activity], the steps you’ve done and you can also put in your weight. It synchronises with the MyFitnessPal app, which is free at this level.” The app also allows users to record their meals and count calories consumed and expended.
“A blasting engineer is already very active,” says Williams. “Everybody reaches a plateau, no matter how active their job is. But do they eat the right fuel to do that job and do they get enough sleep?”
Williams says EPC-UK’s absence rate is below the industry average but, with only 250 staff across multiple sites, not many employees have to go sick before absence has an impact on business continuity.
In 2017, the company logged 1,500 absence days – an average of six per employee. This year it has set a target to cut the average figure to at least four days.
The programme was first launched at the company’s annual UK managers’ conference in Alfreton and rolled out to the other locations during 2017. As well as the Garmin trackers, employees were also presented with rucksacks and commitment cards to fill in with their own objectives.
Individual commitments ranged from modest incremental changes, such as “cutting out crisps”, to more ambitious achievements, one of which was to walk 50,000 steps at the weekends.
“It’s about encouraging; it’s not about dictating,” says Wootton. “It wasn’t about [saying] ‘You’ve got to go to the gym’. It was about a small change in their lifestyle that they could easily do. We asked them to write three things that they are committed to on the cards.”
Williams points out that participation is voluntary and employees can opt out. Those who do take part can share with HR whatever data they feel comfortable with.
“What we said to staff when we launched it was, ‘If you want to accept the invitation, great, but if not, please accept the gift from the business to look after your own welfare’,” he says.
“Ninety-eight per cent accepted the invitation. There were one or two individuals who said, ‘Thanks very much but I’ll never use it’ but when the line manager said, ‘Look, the company wants you to have it’, one of them told me he was using it.”
On the road
Road safety is EPC-UK’s biggest risk, especially for commuting office staff. In 2015, Williams launched a campaign on driving for work and now all employees are required to report near-misses to safety advisers using an app on their work phones.
Williams also appointed Tony Bird, an Institute of Advanced Motorists instructor, as driver training manager. Bird created a new driving-for-work policy and put all staff through a two-day advanced driving course, starting with Williams.
Before Bird’s appointment, EPC-UK logged 12 driving near-misses. This rose to 49 in 2016 and fell back to 20 last year.
“After we started doing the training, the figure went up dramatically,” says Bird. “There was a real spike because the drivers realised that they’d just driven past a hazard. Now they are not getting involved in as many near-misses through enhanced observations. Just by doing this, we’ve started to see that a bit of engaged training has paid dividends.”
The advanced driving training also crosses over into “Commit to be fit”. “When people jump in hire cars and unfamiliar vehicles for the first time, all the stress levels go up and what we’re trying to do is keep them as calm as possible,” says Bird.
“The biggest part of it is the enhanced observations. Most people get into situations that they can’t get out of. We’ve been getting them to anticipate other road users’ actions. When you think about it, 20 years ago you passed your test and there’s never anything until this [advanced driver training]. You let what was a good skill lapse a little bit.”
Wootton explains that EPC-UK’s commercial drivers work from Monday to Friday. They do not have to alternate day and night shifts and have the weekend to recuperate, which helps to minimise road risk.
The company’s drivers cannot be on the road lawfully for longer than ten hours in a working day. Although most of them don’t get close to that limit and the company encourages regular stops where practicable, the fact that some single-manned vehicles are carrying hazardous cargo precludes lengthy stops and drivers leaving the vehicles unattended.
EPC-UK encourages individual employees to sign up as safety ambassadors to communicate the importance of safety throughout the organisation by providing personal testimonies showing how they have learned from incidents and changed their safety behaviour. Williams wants to take the same approach to “Commit to be fit”.
“I think the challenge for us is for people to share those testimonies. Once they share them, it becomes real,” he says.
“One chap said that the help from Dr Stanley, the nutritional information he was given, and the Garmin device had completely changed his routine. He said, ‘The best thing you’ve given me is something to measure my progress’. With everything we do, unless it can be measured nothing ever sticks.”
Now that most workers have registered on the web portal with their name and division, HR can see who is and isn’t being supported.
Williams recognises that communicating with remote workers and keeping them engaged is the biggest challenge.
“We are approachable,” he says. “That frustrates me. If I ever hear the manager or supervisor is not approachable in the business, then they haven’t bought it.”
Williams agrees with APM Terminals’ Kevin Furniss (Leader interview, IOSH Magazine, February bit.ly/2BRns9O) that there is no such thing as a safety culture. He argues that safeguarding employees’ safety, health and wellbeing should be implicit in the corporate culture and adds that leaders should always talk about the vision.
“Don’t talk about where you are today because they won’t see the vision if you don’t keep talking about it,” he says. “For me, it’s ultimately about being interdependent and people not seeing a need for me to lead on things like this. I’d like to see leaders pop up inside the business and take it on. If someone said, ‘I’d like to be the mental health specialist for EPC-UK’, I’d say, ‘Go for it’.”
Nick Warburton is deputy editor of IOSH Magazine