Case study

Finlays: Top of the crop

The global tea and coffee producer’s zero-harm strategy secured first place at IOSH’s food and drinks industry awards last year. 

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study
Image credit: © Finlays

The biggest challenge Mike Keating faced when finalising Finlays’ zero-harm strategy for its launch in April 2017 was how its ambition to improve the global tea, coffee and beverage producer’s overall OSH performance could be achieved with such a diverse portfolio of businesses and cultures.

Only five months into the post, the group head of health and safety acknowledged the difficulty in moving the entire company forward at the same pace when the levels of safety maturity varied so strikingly across its individual operations.

There were also significant differences in legislation, standards and enforcement to contend with in countries as far flung as Argentina, Kenya, Sri Lanka and the United States, not to mention the varied safety risks.

In Finlays’ case these included those found in the hi-tech processes employed in the extracts business as well as more antiquated industrial practices on the Kenyan and Sri Lankan tea plantations, which, in some cases, hadn’t changed in more than 100 years.

The company’s five-year strategy, which won IOSH’s international food and drinks health and safety awards in 2018, recognises this challenge and has been designed to encourage continual improvement.

Limited gains

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study, extracts and ingredients plant


Founded in Scotland in 1750, James Finlay Limited (Finlays) is an international supplier of tea, coffee and natural ingredients for the global beverage industry and is wholly owned by John Swire & Sons.

The business-to-business operation’s main focus is its tea plantations, with two in Sri Lanka and one each in Kenya and Argentina. Of its 30,000 global staff, most work on its plantations and related factories in Sri Lanka and Kenya, which employ around 12,000 and 10,000 workers respectively. The Kenyan operation also includes an extracts and ingredient plant for processing at Saosa. Its Argentinian plantation, which is fully mechanised, employs 321 staff but operates fully only six months of the year.

The rest of Finlays’ workforce is employed across customer support, manufacturing, packing, research and development, and trading. Its manufacturing sites include tea and coffee processing plants which also produce extracts and ingredients.

The UK operations include a small factory that processes decaffeinated tea in Hull, employing 44 staff. It also yields caffeine as a by-product for the energy drinks market. A beverages plant in Pontefract, South Yorkshire, employs 284 staff and blends and packages tea and coffee.

Historically, Finlays’ approach to managing accidents and injuries had been largely reactive, with an emphasis on lagging indicators. Each of the individual operations reported on safety and health but there was no move towards a centrally co-ordinated approach until the director of corporate affairs, Julian Davies, brought in a consultant four years ago. This led to a corporate health and safety management system but, without a dedicated OSH professional in post to foster improvements across the entire business, success was limited.

Part of the problem was that previous discussions about safety and health had been directed mainly at senior management and seldom engaged middle managers who had more leverage to action improvements on the ground. As a result, each business had developed its own ways of working.

Safety and health was often perceived as a “bolt-on” compliance issue and, in some cases, an obstacle to operations and productivity. Importantly, little investment had been made to build the capabilities of the field and factory operatives in some of the most challenging markets, notably in Kenya and Sri Lanka, where limited levels of education and literacy made it difficult to communicate safety messages with the manual workforce.

When Keating joined Finlays at its London headquarters in November 2016, the priority was to develop a recognised framework so the company’s global executive team could improve the OSH performance throughout the organisation.

To ensure all business operations were represented and involved, a corporate health and safety team was formed, which evolved into Finlays Always Safe Team (FAST).

Making tea is an old industry, with many areas still doing it as they would have 100 years ago


The zero-harm strategy comprises two parts: a zero-harm road map, which encompasses the technical and more easily measurable impacts of the strategy; and Finlays’ “Always Safe” culture, which includes a hazard reporting system for workers to flag up practices that they deem unsafe. As part of “Always Safe”, a “thumbs up” symbol was introduced for employees to show they are onboard with safer working practices.

The new onus is on developing a more positive organisational culture across the company’s global operations, with a greater emphasis on using leading indicators such as hazard reports, safety tours and toolbox talks to measure safety performance.

Tea tips

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study, most labour is manual due to challenging terrainDue to the seasonal nature of growing tea and coffee, Finlays’ workforce fluctuates throughout the year but at its height there are around 30,000 employees, with more than two-thirds operating in its largest market: the tea plantations in Kenya and Sri Lanka. 

The Kenyan operation consists of four neighbouring tea estates, which fall under the management of a single plantation. Sri Lanka has more than 30 estates spread across the country’s length but in effect are run under two plantations. Both markets depend largely on manual labour to pick tea leaves.

“The tea process is not a particularly complicated one, but the quality of the product can depend quite heavily on what you start with – what you pick,” says Keating. “Finlays’ logo comprises two leaves and a tip and if that’s all you pick and process you are on to a good start.”

The alternative is to mechanise, which is what Finlays has done in its small, seasonal operation in Argentina. The plantation uses adapted tractors fitted with trimmers to collect the tea.

“The challenge is that, with the hedge trimmer, you get two leaves and the tip but also other parts of the bush,” Keating says. “There’s nothing out there that is going to just pick leaves and a tip as well as an individual, which means we have to look at our processes to maintain the highest quality of tea product.”

In Kenya, the company has introduced some mechanical harvesting in which two workers steer a hand-held machine across the bushes to collect the tea. On Sri Lanka’s steep hillsides, the work remains predominantly manual due to the challenging terrain. However, picking is done at waist height with no bending, and the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders is low. The bigger concern for most tea pickers is the dangerous animals that inhabit the tea estates. 

Age-old risks

In Kenya and Sri Lanka the most significant risks are found in the factories where the picked tea passes through a series of processes, starting with the withering lofts, which are large troughs for drying. Next, the leaves go through rollers, which crush them. They are then fermented or oxidised and dried before grading and sifting.

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study, natural hazard warning sign

Natural hazards

In Sri Lanka and Kenya, dangerous wildlife can present a significant risk to the tea pickers. Poisonous snake areas are an ever-present danger (above). Nests of another hazard, hornets, are protected by local environmental legislation, so trying to move or destroy them is not an option but they remain an ongoing risk.

“We had a serious incident before I started,” Mike Keating says. “Birds of prey will sometimes attack the hornets’ nest to get the grubs inside. When they do that, the hornets will swarm and attack the first thing they find. One of the workers from a picking team was badly stung.”

During part of the year, workers on one Sri Lankan estate have to be wary about the movement of two male elephants that walk through the local villages and across the tea-growing areas, presenting risks to both life and property.

“We are working with other partners to construct an elephant corridor,” he says. “It’s almost a corridor of trees but has water at regular intervals to entice the elephants and lead them into a national reserve and home to mixed herds.”

“Between each of those processes, from the tea arriving to final dispatch, there is a lot of manual handling such as carrying heavy sacks. There is limited automation,” Keating says. “Making tea is an old industry, with many still doing it as they would have 100 years ago.”

Although some risks are related to work at height and moving vehicles, the two main causes of factory injuries are contact with moving machinery and manual handling. The challenges are a mix of behaviours and incorrect procedures, Keating says. In the case of the former, he says incidents tend to happen when workers intervene in the operations, such as clearing a blockage in a roller: “Rather than go through the correct procedures, they will take a short cut and try to clear it quickly.”

The injuries are usually minor, although there have been fractures and in one case a worker lost a toe. These accidents tend to happen when workers fail to follow Finlays’ lockout/tagout system, which isolates the energy and controls the equipment so that it cannot be operated until the lockout device is removed.

“In Sri Lanka, the lockout/tagout is basic,” says Keating. “Most of the time it is a padlock on a distribution board. The padlock will come off and they’ll turn the power off the machine and then padlock it up again so no one can turn on the machine [until the blockage is cleared]. But that takes time and effort and only one person has the key.”

Over the past 20 months, the company has upgraded guarding, which has brought a significant drop in injuries caused by contact with moving machinery. In 2017, there were 57 incidents relating to lost-time injuries and minor injuries; a year later, there were 34.

If one factory worker sees another doing something that is not safe, will they challenge them? That’s rare


One area Keating has worked on since the strategy was launched is engagement of middle managers to encourage safer working practices.

“My argument to managers is that, if the procedures are not practical or are too complicated, the workers won’t follow them.”

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study, upgraded guardingThere has also been a greater focus on information sharing across what is a complex organisation. Last year, Finlays set up a safety alert and safety share system. Should there be a lost-time injury, managers must raise a safety alert, explaining what happened, why and what was done to prevent a re-occurrence. The safety shares allow managers to share what is working well across the organisation.

The need for more effective use of safety sharing can be demonstrated in relation to an old, but good, fermenter used in Kenya.

“It’s a very slow-moving machine but it requires the worker to put their hand in with a stick to clear the tea leaves to stop it clogging,” Keating says.

“In one factory they introduced a new procedure where they could stop the machine before doing this without it having any negative impact on the tea quality.”

A few months later, there was an accident on an identical machine in another factory.

“The worker’s sleeve got caught, though fortunately he wasn’t seriously injured,” says Keating. “We found that the new procedure had not been shared as effectively as we had thought, and the injured employee had not been trained, so it was not about employee behaviour, but about us not sharing and implementing best practice.”

Outside the plantation factories, the main risk areas are in the extracts business, where there are hot processes and pressure vessels. In 2017 a worker in Kenya was scalded by hot liquid that escaped from a vessel which should have been secured by a screw lock.

A winning zero harm strategy, tea arriving into Kenya factory“Someone had replaced it with a nut and washer,” says Keating. The vessel was leaking and an employee, who was wearing gum boots, had used a spanner and tried to tighten the washer.

“The washer slipped off and the hot liquid [which is like a syrup] came out, some of which went down his boot. His leg was badly scalded. If he had stood where he was ten seconds earlier, it would have possibly gone into his face and certainly down his chest. Fortunately, it only got his lower leg and he made a full recovery.”

Keating says fatalities and serious injuries are rare but do occur in relation to one of the hardest risks to control – road safety.

Public roads run through the tea estates and, where practicable, Finlays has installed speed humps to slow traffic. However, there are limitations on what it can do on public roads. In contrast, the positioning of a series of rope bridges above the busy roads allows the area’s monkey population to move about safely, and is testament to the company’s sustainability ambitions.

Sri Lanka, despite the challenging environment, old equipment and greater range of risks, has the best safety record of all Finlays’ operations, says Keating. But the greatest reduction in lost working hours has been recorded in Argentina – a clear benefit of the occupational health physicians in place there. Keating estimates this intervention accounted for about a quarter of the 43% reduction in total lost working hours achieved across Finlays in the first year.

Audit tour

With the exception of Sri Lanka, Keating audits every facility. He says he would need two months to complete this in Sri Lanka so instead travels around the country for two and a half weeks each year and audits around half of the factories.

Last year, he developed a more robust auditing format, aligned to ISO 45001, which was introduced this March.

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study, workers have to move heavy sacks between processes“We tell them, ‘Your score is about continuous improvement. Do not compare yourself with others because we are so different’,” he says. “The new format will see a significant drop in scores, for example in Sri Lanka where they have a fantastic safety record but things like documentation and procedures are not so strong. As we go more down a management system, there will be a focus on that and we have to manage expectations around it.”

On the plus side, the new format provides a corporate assurance model and the business with a more effective tool, he adds.

“It will be far more robust for them. They can use it as a self-assessment tool. From the audit report we produce, it will give them much better information on opportunities for improvement.”

Measured progress

The zero-harm strategy has been designed to be flexible so that it reflects each individual business’s needs, while ensuring that all operations can improve their OSH performance in a clearly defined and measurable framework. To achieve this, Keating, with help from FAST, created a zero-harm road map in early 2017. 

Designed around an aspirational “seven routes to success” model, which had been introduced previously by the director of corporate affairs, the road map took the seven elements of the model, including measurements such as “culture”, “competence” and “leadership”, and divided these into 31 areas where businesses could act.

To help the different business managers further, Keating included a scoring system so they could make a baseline assessment against all 31 areas, thereby providing a means to measure future improvements. The exercise enabled the global executive team to gain an overview of where the individual operations were in terms of safety maturity and where support and resources could be directed.

To start, each business carried out an internal engagement exercise to identify which interventions would have the greatest impact and devised an individual action plan. This was shared with the global executive team to which Keating reported.

“We very much put the onus back on the business on how they were going to progress,” he says. “It gave them the ownership but also ensured everyone was moving forward within the same structured framework.”

Every business was challenged to engage its employees, and nearly 25,000 participated in the zero-harm launch in April 2017.

Since then, an important area of focus has been to improve the skillset of the 2,000 frontline managers responsible for safety. A bespoke training course was launched last September and so far around 200 managers have passed.

Recognise and reward

A winning zero harm strategy, Finlays case study, Mike Keating, group head of health and safety, Finlays’

Finlays also runs recognition awards to encourage progress, including “Always Safe” accolades for safety champions, innovation and most improved site.

Keating says the zero-harm strategy focuses more on continual improvement than milestones, although he will review it this year. He also anticipates having to tweak the zero-harm road map and how it is assessed.

The strategy has made a positive impact: lost-time injuries (when an employee has lost one working day or more but excluding the day of the incident) are down from 79 in 2016 to 55 in 2017 and 42 in 2018. The new hazard reporting system reflects growing buy-in from the workforce, with 8,454 reports in 2016, increasing to 9,620 in 2017 and 12,558 in 2018.

In 2019, the focus remains on safety, but Keating has broadened the strategy’s scope to more health and wellbeing.

He admits it is not easy to engage with tea pickers on the front line, but he hopes they can use health and wellbeing to improve worker buy-in.

Sri Lanka is a particular challenge. “Some of the cultures are traditionally very hierarchical,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to walk around some factories or fields and converse with the workers. Predominantly, they will smile at me, but if you ask them how to improve something they’re reluctant to speak up as I’m still the guy from head office.”

Further work is also needed to improve safety practice in the more challenging operations.

“If one factory worker sees another doing something that is not safe, will they challenge them? That’s rare,” he says. “It’s nowhere near as much as we’d like, so we’re putting a lot of effort into this in 2019.”

The investment in safety conversations will involve finding out why they are not happening more, what will encourage them and how to bring them about.

“We’re saying, ‘If you walk past an unsafe act and don’t do anything, but it results in an accident, you are partly responsible’,” he says.

“We are also stretching it out to, ‘He’s not just your friend, think about the family’. Everyone can be a safety leader by complying with procedures and challenging colleagues who don’t.”


Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner

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