We have become so dependent on its services it is easy to forget how young the mobile phone industry is. The first cellular networks were established only in the early 1980s. Vodafone was in at the beginning. It evolved from the military radio division of the British electronics giant Racal and launched its first public network in 1985.
Rapid growth followed, first in the UK, then internationally. It is now one of the biggest global operators, with 470 million customers on its mobile networks in 26 countries and another 14 million for fixed lines.
According to Dwayne Duncum, head of health, safety and wellbeing at the company's Australian arm, the group's speedy expansion in the latter part of the past decade brought serious safety challenges. By 2008 it had set up operations in most of the European states and moved into developing world markets, opening divisions in Ghana, Turkey, Egypt and India, among others, where safety standards were still embryonic in some cases.
"As soon as we went outside of an environment where there was strong legal compliance and strong governmental control of safety, we realised our systems and our processes were not robust enough," Duncum says.
Dwayne Duncum career file
2014-present: Head of health, safety and wellbeing, Vodafone Hutchison Australia
2012-2014: Group health, safety and wellbeing manager, Vodafone Group
2010-2012: Health, safety and wellbeing manager, Vodafone Qatar
2008-2010: Health, safety, environmental and quality consultant, Beta Risk Management
2006-2008: Health, safety and environmental manager, Nokia Siemens Networks
The company's 2009-10 Sustainability Report noted the fatalities of three employees, 24 contractors and 14 members of the public, mostly in road accidents in new territories. "We took those numbers to the board and they were horrified," Duncum says.
"There was a sense that we could change it. The attitude at senior level has never been 'How do we protect our backsides?' It has been that we must improve things."
Discussions with the board about that level of harm were not easy, he says, "but we also had the comfort that our senior management was there to help us fix it."
I note Vodafone's inclusion of public and contractor accidents in its metrics is far from a universal practice. Duncum says the decision was taken early that the company should draw its responsibilities wide: "You can talk your way out of these things, [saying] 'Oh it was a third-tier contractor and they weren't officially working for us'. But our senior management took the position that if we could have influenced the situation and changed the outcome we were going to count it."
The company's rapid action cut the fatality total by three-quarters by 2015-16.
One plank of the safety function's response to high accident levels in its new divisions was to establish a set of six absolute rules in 2009 (see Vodafone's absolute rules box below). These set simple requirements for anyone involved in its most hazardous activities: driving, electricity and work underground and at height.
The attitude at senior level has never been 'How do we protect our backsides?'
The rules were non-negotiable; breaking them could result in dismissal. This reflected the fact that relying on the slow development of a consensus-led safety culture alone would have left the accident rates unacceptably high for too long.
Duncum was in a global group role when the rules were being promulgated and helped embed them in some of the new territories.
"I was sent to the problem areas," he says. "I spent a lot of time in India and a year in Ghana helping turn round the performance."
"People in India know that when Vodafone says 'You have to wear a helmet', we mean it. We are not 'grey' on it. And that's regardless of seniority."
"In Ghana we launched a [road safety] programme and we came out with clear, bold statements that if you are caught speeding you will be disciplined and if it's extreme you will be dismissed because you are not representing the company [properly].
"One of the senior sales guys, a top performer, was the one that pushed the boundaries, so much so that the business dismissed him."
The action sent a clear message about the company's commitment to the rules, he says.
Three of Vodafone's absolute rules concern driving safely -- four if you include the one about never working under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is no coincidence; the group operates enormous fleets in all its operating divisions.
"We have technicians driving all over the place fixing faults," says Duncum. "We have a massive sales channel and warehousing facilities to stock all our retail stores. Our road traffic footprint is extensive."
Combined with poor road safety infrastructure and culture in many of the developing countries, this is why road accidents still account for two-thirds of fatalities.
The effect of the rules and monitoring has been remarkable, he says. The Turkish division previously had multiple road fatalities each year (including public deaths) and recently achieved around two years with none.
Vodafone's absolute rules
Always wear seatbelts when travelling in or operating vehicles.
Always use suitable personal protective equipment, a safety harness and fall protection when working at height.
Never carry out electrical work on electrical equipment, circuits and gear if the individual is not qualified.
Never work under the influence of substances (alcohol or drugs) that are illegal or in excess of legal levels or where this impairs the individual's ability to perform tasks.
Never exceed speed limits or travel at speeds that are dangerous for the type of vehicle or conditions.
Never use a hand-held phone while driving and only make calls by pulling over or using hands-free devices, when it is safe to do so.
Never undertake any street or underground work activities unless competent to do so.
"There is also a positive side," says Duncum. "Vodafone India does this incredibly well. They focus on lives saved due to the absolute rules. They have people who have contributed personal stories about how they were travelling with their families and were involved in an accident but the family were wearing their seatbelts -- which is a Vodafone absolute rule -- and weren't injured."
There are hundreds of these stories, he says, promoted monthly in employee newsletters and on the intranet in a "lives saved" electronic dashboard showing the numbers protected which also draws on the Indian division's stats for at-work accidents in which employees avoided harm by wearing seatbelts or helmets.
The rules may be absolute but the way they were transmitted varied by territory: "There was a lot of flexibility for teams to adapt to their markets. The best people to come up with creative solutions to get the message out are the local people."
Staff in India arranged a big fashion show modelling personal protective equipment to contractors, he recalls, and it was very successful, "but if I had tried to do that in Germany, for example, it would not have had the same traction."
In the cab
"One area I'm proud of is our use of technology," says Duncum. "We are a mobile technology company and we do absolutely try to bring mobile technology into everything we do, down to lone workers having a tailored mobile device with check-in functionality and geolocation services."
Driver telematics were essential to underpinning the absolute rules on road risk. The systems, installed in many Vodafone vehicles, even those of managers, allow remote monitoring of drivers' safe and unsafe behaviour.
He returns to the example of Turkey: "It's one of our biggest success stories. There is no culture of road safety there, it's not a concept. In our fleet of drivers and technicians there was a fatality or serious injury monthly, but they never made the connection that it was all about driver behaviour, until we put in the telematics devices."
The sooner the data was communicated to the driver, the better the improvement. "When it was periodic, weekly or monthly, they would get an email from their line manager saying 'Your performance wasn't what we expected, please raise your game or well done'.
"Where the behaviour changed overnight was when the guy infringed a rule he was notified as soon as possible, definitely within the same shift. Then we could say to them 'In this shift you have had three incidences of where you have oversped and you are braking harshly'." But immediacy has its limits: "You don't really want to be ringing the guy [on the road] to say 'You are speeding' because that adds a whole new hazard!"
Transparency is a big issue for Vodafone. In an age in which every big corporation feels obliged to report its social and environmental responsibility metrics, the company still stands out for the creditable detail it provides on any ethical issues that touch its business areas. These range from the state of research on potential effects of mobile phone emissions on children's brains to the efforts to eliminate conflict minerals from its supply chain.
Where many annual sustainability reports concede two or three paragraphs to OSH performance, Vodafone's latest (bit.ly/2cCAtgK) has seven pages, detailing its work to monitor and influence OSH standards in its workforce and suppliers (see the chain reaction box below).
As in many organisations committed to a strong safety culture, the executive team members and senior management walk the talk, making quarterly safety tours of the operations. This not only helps field workers see their seniors "mean it", but has also increased the executives' grasp of the reality of sound OSH management, he says.
"When you are talking to a marketing director about the risks associated with outdoor media and people climbing structures, that's one thing. But when you go with them and they are standing by a 20 m high billboard in Accra with someone hanging off it without a harness trying to secure their branding, that's another.
"It helped them understand the challenges and the environments our employees and contractors work in."
In the developing world, he says, a culture of transparency takes longer to establish because workers are reticent about admitting involvement in incidents in case they are blamed. "And it's difficult, because you have a set of absolute rules and there are serious consequences for breaching them and at the same time you need that flow of information."
In Australia, by contrast, he finds there is a well-established culture of reporting incidents, partly because the state workers' compensation scheme makes it harder for them to claim if they have not logged the incident officially.
He switched to the country-based OSH role in Sydney in 2014, after three years of troubleshooting in the developing world. "I had young children and the opportunity came up for a local market that needed some support in Australia and we've always wanted to live here."
Vodafone has thousands of contractors and suppliers, from mobile phone handset manufacturers to phone mast erectors. The group sets the same absolute safety rules (see (see Vodafone's absolute rules box above). for contractors that it applies to its direct workforce.
Repeated failure to comply with the rules can lead to termination of purchase orders and contracts and disqualification from rebidding for a fixed period.
Suppliers receive a "red card" warning for any high-potential or near-miss incident.
The absolute rules are backed by simple written standards. The technical standard for work at height, for example, is only two pages long with no technical jargon and can be translated easily into any language.
"What we do well is communicate those standards consistently across all our 26 markets," says Dwayne Duncum. "So if a contractor comes and does work with the UK, for example, they might think the standards are just a British thing and they don't have to worry about that in Ghana. But that senior manager would take a crew and do some work in Ghana and find exactly the same standard is expected of them."
The technical standards are bolstered by the fact that contracting is now organised by a global procurement division. "When you have a big centralised function it's easy to communicate the same message globally. We are saying 'If your performance across the business is not consistent, you are not going to be working with us'."
The country safety teams feed information back to the procurement division on contractors' compliance with the standards: "They will say 'Your commitment to us is to have a risk assessment on every site but our teams in Ghana have done ten audits and there were no risk assessments. That's a fail'.
"We have been hard on our venders," he says, "and they have responded incredibly well."
As well as conducting regular site audits of contractors sites and surveying their workers directly by mobile phone on their working conditions, four times a year the group safety function organises supplier safety forums for its major network contractors. In the forums it shares best practice examples and educational materials to promote improved safety in high-risk activities.
Vodafone Australia has around 3,000 employees and a similar number of contractors. He arrived after a period of restructuring and one of his first tasks as head of the OSH function was to define the key risk areas: "What is going to cause us harm and loss and how do we, as a support function, ensure the business is able to manage them appropriately?"
The company has embarked on a major installation programme, laying fibre-optic cables as part of a planned broadband service.
"That opens a new can of worms from a safety perspective," he says. The installation involves digging 1.8 m-deep trenches, laying cables in confined spaces, working in public roads that cannot be closed off.
"If we are laying a cable from Melbourne to Sydney, that's a considerable distance. Just the scale is something."
But the cross-country part of the operation can be heavily mechanised, he says, cutting the manual element and the risk. The operation is most difficult in the metropolitan areas, "where you have to scale down the machinery and you are working in a denser environment."
These challenges often shift the work into the quieter night hours. But that entails other risks. "It's another layer of complexity. When you have to try to illuminate a workspace, shadows are a real problem. If you have to work under floodlights all night, it is tiring. And for people working at height, how we illuminate a [phone] tower is another problem."
He says there is no codified best way to organise site illumination. "One thing I have learned is that lighting is a very personal thing, like air conditioning in an office. The best way I have seen it done is where you have given the rigger or the person doing the work the flexibility to choose their preferred methods. One may like to have a light on his helmet, another prefers a telescopic light off to the side."
"I feel quite strongly about this," he says. "Where the competent person doing the work has the flexibility and agility in the safety systems to customise it to the way they like to work. Where it doesn't work is where you come as a big corporate and say 'All trenches need to have a lamp post every 3 m with suitable lighting'. There's no agility in that, no flexibility, and it becomes very bureaucratic."
He is not advocating a free-for-all in site management standards. "We absolutely need a structure and need to set a framework in terms of minimum guidelines and to say 'This is what good looks like', but then to allow the crews on site the flexibility to use the lighting the way that best suits their style of working."
I ask if there is anything else specific to OSH management in Australia. He replies that the differing regulatory structures state by state and the worker's comp system encourages an over-tight focus on the law.
"I'm on a bit of a mission. My pet peeve is compliance and I'm trying to pull down the compliance structures we have, especially for contractors. Everyone is so worried about being legally compliant they are missing the bigger picture of why we do safety.
"Compliance is a given. But it's definitely not the motivating factor for developing a checklist or [risk] register just because the law says we have to do it.
"When I first arrived I had the law thrown at me in every meeting. And I'm challenging that and asking 'Is this the best way to do it? Is it the most effective route from point A to point B? Forget about the legislation for a second. If we do our best that will guarantee compliance'.
In the scheme of things
Vodafone's safety function is part of human resources, so Duncum reports to the HR director.
His job is to set the direction, structure and reporting lines for OSH, to report on performance to senior management and to ensure Vodafone Hutchison Australia has the right competencies and skills for good performance and compliance.
He has a team of three people, a health and safety manager serving the retail, technical infrastructure and construction activities, another who runs wellbeing programmes and deals with the paperwork associated with injury claims under Australia's workers' compensation scheme, and a third looking after management systems and governance.
In the "delivery team", which is responsible for capital expenditure products from erecting phone masts to building data centres, there is a separate specialist group of health and safety specialists who have a dotted line to Duncum. "It's a project hub," he says of the delivery team. "It scales up and down as projects come in."
"I tell my team 'If you want to do something, to take a proposition to the business, do it, but you aren't allowed a reference piece of legislation. If your argument for doing something is because the law says so, forget it. You have to be better than that'.
"Anyone can say 'According to section 123 we need a risk assessment'. But why are you doing the risk assessment, what's its purpose?
"I've yet to find anyone who gets excited about filling out checklists for the sake of it. The value is in doing it for a purpose and using the information for something real."
Duncum started out planning a career as an environmentalist. "My ambition was to get into conservation," he says. "I wanted to be in a safari park counting animals."
His environmental degree in his home country South Africa involved work experience in the country's major telecoms operator Vodacom, where he became interested in corporate environmental management.
Jobs with Siemens and Nokia Siemens followed and exposed him to more safety and health management work alongside the environmental duties.
In 2008 he started a consultancy with some colleagues. "We started to grow quite quickly and took on quality [management] and eventually I took charge of customer liaison and had up to ten consultants working under me."
The agency was contracted to advise Vodafone and in 2010 he moved into the company full time. He gained a diploma in OSH management, encouraged by one of his managers.
Does he still hanker for the safari park? "I realised quite early on that I get my energy from being around people and if you are sitting in the bush looking at elephants it can be quite lonely. I'm interested in human dynamics and how people work.
"I have been incredibly fortunate, the experiences I've had so far in my career in safety and environment. I've been in senior positions and led diverse teams and been in some high-risk environments and had some tangible wins.
"I'm probably at a crossroads in my career," he reflects. "I'm excited by business and by people and technology. So any industry using technology and where people are championing a cause and making a difference, that's where I want to be."
He says his logical next step would be into a safety director role.
He has worked hardest on improving his communication skills. "Written and spoken communication becomes more critical at a senior level and being able to stand up in front of people and articulate a message clearly. When you are in front of senior management it is all about your ability to influence and tell a story."
What has he learned as a leader? "To be adaptable. Just because something worked last year doesn't mean it will again this year. And to be conscious of the environment you are working in. Coming to Australia, it's a different culture and what was an effective way of driving the safety agenda in the UK or at group level doesn't necessarily work here.
"So there's an element of being tactical and adaptive in how you approach things, but people are people, we all have similar desires and everyone wants to feel valued."