Recipes for success

AB Sugar won last year’s food & drink health and safety awards, with Allied Bakeries Belfast and 2018’s winner Finlays coming second and third. We take a look at what they did to impress the judges.

In OSH discourse, leading versus lagging indicators as measurements of performance is a perennial theme. These days, the general consensus is that, although both are required to provide an overall picture of OSH performance, the emphasis should be on leading indicators. Which is all well and good, but how do you measure such ‘intangibles’ as leadership, involvement, ownership and accountability? 

This was the conundrum faced by the winner of IOSH’s 2019 food & drink health and safety awards, AB Azucarera Iberia – a Spanish manufacturer of sugar and related products (see box below) that is part of the Associated British Foods-owned AB Sugar Group, based in Peterborough. Around four years ago, the company – despite having had a sustained and strong focus on risk identification and mitigation – realised its health and safety performance had plateaued. Although robust systems and procedures were in place, it had primarily been reacting to the failure of these systems and not looking at how effective the implementation had been. 

As a result, Azucarera’s director of occupational-hazard prevention, Esther Fernandez Gila, decided that, rather than measuring the absence of safety, her focus would henceforth be on the presence of safety. She explains: “The first, and one of the most important, things we did was analyse the level of maturity of our safety culture. We conducted a repeat safety culture survey with our people and held workshops at all of our sites in Spain, which provided more evidence of the issues we needed to address. 

First place

AB Azucarera Iberia

Azucarera manufactures sugar from sugar beet grown by some 4,800 farmers around Spain. The company also imports raw cane sugar for refining in its factories. From sugar beet it creates food products for human and animal consumption, fertilisers and other agricultural and industrial products, which it sells to businesses all over Iberia. Azucarera is one of six operating businesses of AB Sugar, which has a network of 24 plants in ten countries, employing around 32,000 people.


"We used the [preventive] Nordic Occupational Safety Climate Questionnaire (NOSACQ-50), which revealed significant opportunities for improvement. Although the results were generally positive, 37% of our people still felt we were being reactive rather than proactive.”

Temperature check

Steve Williams, head of business process improvement for AB Sugar, takes up the story: “Climate surveys are quite often used to confirm that all is OK, but the purpose of Esther’s survey was to find the next opportunities, however small, to improve. The average result is less important. If there is one person who doesn’t believe that everything we are doing is absolutely right, then that is an opportunity for us to improve.

“Climate surveys can be a wonderful thing but, regardless of what your people tell you, you do not have a wonderful factory! The information they are giving you is the most valuable you will ever be given, so look at it carefully and find the key areas where you know you can be better.”

Armed with this information, plus detailed analysis of the root causes of accidents and outputs from the safety conversations programme (see p40 of the January issue), both of which Azucarera had been conducting for some time, Fernandez Gila determined the main behaviours that needed to be looked at: unsafe acts (not following systems and procedures), individual factors (bad habits, over-confidence) and leadership factors (inadequate supervision, inappropriate planning and organisation of tasks and excessive pressure). 

Next, we analysed the overall business KPIs,” she says. “We were clear from the outset that we wanted what we were doing to be part of those, not additional to them. Then, we set up sub-indicators relating to leadership and ownership in each key health and safety area. For example, regarding contractors, we measured failures relating to entry documentation, we looked at whether we were holding regular meetings and who was attending them and leading them, and we looked at who was giving safety inductions to contractors when they arrived on site.”

In fact, contractors are the first KPI in the new system of seven – six leading, one lagging – devised by Fernandez Gila and her team to develop the Azucarera health and safety global index. Owing to the seasonality of the sugar-beet crop, the company’s factories are fully operational for only four or five months of the year. The rest of the time is devoted mainly to engineering and maintenance tasks, which involve a large number of contractors. In addition, contracted haulage companies carry out some 180,000 vehicle movements a year.

The other six KPIs in the system are actions management, engagement and participation, safety culture, task procedures, safety conversations and accidents. A further 22 sub-indicators were added across all seven KPIs relating to the aforementioned leadership, management, engagement and participation. According to Williams, with these, the Azucarera team managed to “turn the intangible into something tangible”. He continues: “Things like leadership and ownership are not easy to measure but, where possible, they created tangible KPIs that are reflective of those inputs.”

The sub-indicators change every year – Fernandez Gila calls them “living indicators”, explaining that she uses them “to implement our long-term strategy but also to achieve what we want to achieve on a year-by-year basis”.

Actions management is based on comprehensive action plans drawn up by Fernandez Gila and the health and safety team, using the information gleaned from risk assessments, meetings with employee representatives, etc. The plans can encompass more than 1,000 actions per site, so they are prioritised according to a priority matrix that takes into account the level of risk and resources required to implement the action. 

Azucarera admits that none of this is particularly innovative but where it does set itself apart is in terms of the importance it places on getting the actions done. Williams says: “The team structure at Azucarera is very beautiful. It’s non-functional, so each area of the factory has its own autonomous team managing a factory within a factory. Within each team, they have all of the resources they need to do everything they need to do to manage that part of the factory. In addition to the support of the health and safety team, they have all of the skills, financial budgets and the authority to make decisions. 

“You cannot give teams the responsibility to do something if they do not have the resources to do it. So, if an action is allocated to be completed by a particular date, there are no excuses.”

It is all part of the approach to focus on the presence of safety and praising the positive rather than reacting to the absence of it and focusing on failure. Positive reinforcement of correct behaviour encourages more correct behaviour – people want to be recognised for good work and therefore take pride in doing a job safely and well. 

Williams tells the story of the time one of the company’s directors asked one of its factory managers what happens if an action is not completed. “The manager looked at the director in confusion,” Williams laughs, “and said: ‘I don’t understand the question. All of the actions are completed on time!’”

The thinking was that if ten key behaviours could be corrected, a root cause of all accidents would be eliminated 

Leading the way

Another innovative approach adopted by Azucarera is the rotating safety promoter role. This gives every person responsibility for key safety tasks for a two-week period. They receive a list of simple tasks they are required to do during their stint and, at the end of their two weeks, they have a meeting with the factory manager to discuss what they observed and come up with suggestions for corrective actions.

“It’s not a voluntary role,” Fernandez Gila clarifies. “The objective of the programme is to increase awareness, so everybody should get involved. Originally, it was operated on a voluntary basis but as those doing it clearly enjoyed it, it was decided to ensure that everybody had the same experience. It means we can honestly say that every employee is actively involved in health and safety.”

The company also took a different tack with its safety conversations programme. It began by looking historically at the root causes of accidents from a behavioural perspective; as a result it identified ten behaviours that were behind one or more of all of its previous accidents. The thinking was that if ten key behaviours could be corrected, a root cause of all accidents would be eliminated. 

“We did a huge analysis exercise with all of the factory managers to establish these behaviours and then implemented a huge communication plan to raise awareness of them,” says Fernandez Gila.

Traditionally, safety conversation programmes have involved observing and intervening to talk about safe and unsafe behaviours, but such an approach is very personal and targeted at an individual or group of people at that particular moment. According to Williams, the Azucarera approach of focusing on ten key safe behaviours is “very non-personal and easy to understand. It is very easy to start a conversation with people about their awareness of the behaviours and which of them are relevant to the task they are doing.”

Since the company changed its approach and started focusing on the presence of safety and involving everyone, it has seen a significant and continuous improvement in health and safety performance. Between 2016 and 2019, Azucarera factories recorded a 30% reduction in all accidents, three had no lost-time incidents (LTIs) at all in 2017 and one completed two years without an LTI in 2018. Risk notifications soared by 54% and the action completion rate stands at 85%.

Ultimately, the company is striving for 100% safe factories and Fernandez Gila believes that this will soon be achieved. “But it depends on what you mean by it,” she clarifies. “To me, it means that the only way we want to work is safely. We don’t say it’s impossible to have injuries. We understand that there will be risks we cannot eliminate and that human error will occur, so we have to do our best with the resources we have and the environment in which we are working to mitigate the consequences.”

Williams agrees: “The concept of 100% safe does not mean risk-free. We talk openly about the fact that it is not possible to create a risk-free environment in a sugar factory. It will always be inherently dangerous and we all have to recognise this. That is why knowledge, awareness and the behavioural side all have to be focused on with equal intensity as risk elimination.” 

Allied Bakeries Belfast came second at the awards with Finlays in third place. Like AB Sugar, both impressed judges


When it comes to baking, generally the main objective is to make things rise – bread, cakes, muffins, etc. As long as these are going in an upward direction, all is well. But when health and safety performance figures start doing the same, it’s time to modify the ingredients and rewrite the recipe.

This is exactly what Allied Bakeries in Belfast (see box below) did in late 2018, when it noticed that engagement and progress in health and safety had stalled and that accidents had started to go up in certain departments. 

Operations manager Alan Browne explains: “Over a journey of eight years, health and safety has been devolved to departmental heads. Safety meetings look at leading and lagging indicators, and each senior and front-line manager has safety objectives. 

“Our number of incidents did drop by 50% but there was a bit of a blip in 2018, when first-aid incidents went up from 16 to 20 and we had two lost-time incidents (LTIs). Were we taking our eye off the ball, we wondered? What could we do differently around engagement, we asked ourselves.”

Around 90% of the company’s accidents had a strong behavioural element – a fact determined from its behavioural audit programme and as a result of safety conversations with team members. These “walk and talks”, as Browne calls them, were mainly conducted by front-line managers, so, in order to renew and drive engagement in health and safety, it was decided to expand that group to encompass ‘safety champions’. 

Browne explains: “The hierarchical structure at Allied Bakeries is quite flat and we don’t have a lot of staff turnover, either. We recognised that people were hungry to do something, so we ran a poster campaign inviting them to apply to become safety champions. In addition, we appointed others who we knew were interested in health and safety. We wanted to make sure we had a strong team, so that the approach would work. The safety champions are a mix of people – some who’ve worked with us for just a few years, others that have been with us for 15 years – and they have a range of experience.”

Second place

Allied Bakeries Belfast

Allied Bakeries Belfast is part of the Allied Milling & Baking Group, which comprises eight bakeries and three mills. The Belfast site manufactures products mainly for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but also for the wider British market. Its main products include tinned and batch bread, plus pancakes, soda bread and potato bread – of which it produces 3.2 million a week. The main health and safety focus at the site is improving manual handling, reducing dust and work at height.

Championing safety

There are two groups of safety champions – one covering the manufacturing side of the business and led by Browne, the other covering the logistics side, led by logistics manager, Clive Kerrigan. The champions were trained in core safety skills via IOSH’s Working Safely programme, as well as root-cause analysis and risk assessment. But it wasn’t all just theory.

Browne says: “What keeps me awake at night are things that we should be doing that we’re not yet aware of, so we made the safety champions action-oriented. We send them out to look for issues that haven’t been addressed and then develop solutions.”

A good example of a project is one that considered the unforeseen consequences of a change in shift pattern. One plant changed from daytime working to night shifts but the impact of that change on a nearby plant, in which a lot of loading by forklift truck took place, was not considered. Consequently, the loading was being done in and around people.

Browne describes the solution: “Flexible barriers were installed, redundant equipment was removed to make more space for forklift truck manoeuvres and floor markings were put down. It cost virtually nothing but the potential win, in terms of preventing serious injury – or worse – to team members, was huge. The safety champion, who had detected the problem, devised the solution with the support of their manager.”

In fact, front-line managerial support is key to the success of the safety champions project. 

“They must be involved from the start,” Browne emphasises. “If you develop training for employees without getting their line managers on board, it will stutter and fail. In our case, we hold meetings quarterly, which gives the champions time to develop their projects and us time to prepare for the next session. These meetings are scheduled well in advance, with the front-line managers. In that way, we can make sure we arrange cover for people in good time and that not too many people are off the job at the one time.”

Poor visibility

The decision was taken early on not to have too many champions, so that the programme was easier to manage and ensure that those fulfilling the role remain motivated. But there was an issue with this. 

Browne explains: “Having fewer people affects their visibility, so we had the idea of getting the champions to take somebody else from their team or department with them on their risk assessments. As a result, we have more people engaging with health and safety, because they have seen first-hand what the champions are doing, and they like it. We call this the ripple effect.”

The teams of champions have expanded slightly since the programme started, in October 2018, and they are currently working to a tactical plan derived from objectives set by the Allied Milling & Baking Group board. “This is not prescriptive,” Browne is keen to emphasise. 

“We can look at how we do things as a site and then address that based on the company plan. For example, of the various issues prioritised in the plan for next year, our safety champions have opted to focus on dust and work at height.”

Browne says Allied Bakeries Belfast’s ‘programme of doing things differently’ has been an easy sell to the board. “Obviously, senior managers still want to see improvements in lagging indicators, but the main thing has been to show them how engaging employees is helping us achieve incident-reduction targets as well,” he says. 

“The board comes to the site twice a year specifically to look at health and safety issues. They are introduced to the safety champions and get to talk to them about their projects. In turn, the employees note that visibility and get to share their enthusiasm for health and safety with senior management.”

Before the safety champions programme was launched, Allied Bakeries Belfast was at the ‘independent’ stage of the Dupont Bradley Curve. 

Browne elaborates: “We weren’t having to force people to report hazards. They were reported naturally and the people on the shop floor were talked to a lot. Individuals were good at taking care of themselves but were not necessarily looking out for their buddies. They didn’t feel like they had permission to say something to someone who they felt was doing something wrong. They didn’t have the confidence to challenge colleagues. The safety champions programme is about empowering them to be able to do so.”

He concludes: “We are aiming for but not yet at the ‘interdependent’ stage. We are only a year into the programme and while we haven’t got everyone looking after each other yet, we are certainly a few steps closer to it.”

Third place


Finlays is a business-to-business beverages company with a history that stretches back 250 years. With more than 25,000 employees, more than half are employed across its tea plantations in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Argentina where tea is harvested and processed in 24 large tea factories in what is a vertically integrated operation aimed at bringing the best from bush to cup. Finlays also processes coffee and botanicals and have extracts, blending, decaffeinating, packaging and research and development facilities in North America and the UK, along with a growing presence in China.

Healthy is wealthy

Global Beverage producer and winner of the 2018 food & drink awards, Finlays, was awarded third place at last year’s event. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings with it increasing physical and mental wellbeing challenges, Finlays (see box above) introduced a ‘Healthy is Wealthy’ initiative into its Zero Harm strategy that took in both employees and their families. 

As well as recognising that visible senior management commitment was crucial to success, physical activity, medical interventions and community involvement were among the six opportunities it identified for improvement across the business. 

The results have shown a significant decrease in the number of cases of children reporting nutritional disorders in Kenya following its educational campaign, while attendance at mental health workshops has reached 100%. 

In addition, there has been an 11% increase in employees being referred to GPs as a result of increased medical interventions, and an uptake of more than 90% for physical exercise opportunities during work time. 


Tina Weadick is a freelance journalist, editor and translator based in Dublin. She worked on SHP - the forerunner of IOSH Magazine - for 13 years, the last seven as editor. She is a regular contributor to the health and safety media in both the UK and Ireland, and translates from French and German into English for various clients all over Europe.

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