ON a warm summer’s morning, at a trading estate in Brackley, in central England, a group of contractors, site operatives, white collar workers and one journalist gather for what they have been told is a health and safety induction for Britain’s HS2 project. But as they share small talk over coffee in the canteen before the start of work at 09.00, proceedings are interrupted.
Dressed all in orange, Mal enters the room, talking loudly to his colleague Denise, who follows. They appear to be on a mid-shift break and things don’t seem right. They are lacking the equipment to finish a key job while other issues are taking priority - Denise is glued to her phone and is concerned about her children at home while Mal is wincing, the pain from his knee seemingly unbearable. They are soon joined by Sean, their supervisor, who appears very stressed. He forcefully instructs Mal and Denise to get back to work, as he tries to source the materials that they need.
The hum of conversation in the room has stopped. Everyone watches and takes in what is happening. It is quickly apparent that these are not HS2 contractors, but actors. And this isn’t your normal health and safety briefing.
Our group is asked to move to another room and over the next 90 minutes we become immersed in a fictional workplace scenario designed to vividly mimic the participants’ place of work, whether on site, in the site office, or at head office. State-of-the-art media technology and sensory effects put the participant at the heart of the scene and the decisions that take place; we are party to a police interview, exchanges across hierarchies, and a conversation between a contractor’s project director and a client CEO.
Subsequent parallel sessions reflect on the factors that lead people towards a particular course of action until we find out what happened and witness a tragic fatality.
The scene was shocking and the experience powerful. In a later sequence we are confronted with the enormity of the impact of the poor decision-making, bad communication and lack of respect between employees that we have witnessed at the fictional railway construction site. It really hits home.
Every participant is working in some form on HS2 as part of, or as a subcontractor to, EKFB. This is the joint venture of Eiffage, Kier, Ferrovial Construction and BAM Nuttall tasked with constructing the 80km section of the high-speed line from the Chiltern Tunnel to Long Itchington Wood.
In the latter part of the day, each group proceeds through various workshops, which unpick what happened, ask why things went wrong and what should have happened to resolve the situation. The sessions offer communication, behavioural analysis, and conflict resolution techniques that each person might employ in their work on the project. Messages of “Safe at Heart,” “Making the Right Choice,” following the rules, thinking before we act, speaking up, and looking out for each other are repeated consistently during the workshops.
This is kinaesthetic training or learning by doing. “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I may remember. Involve me and I understand” is the ethos of Active Training Team (ATT), the company employed by EKFB to provide induction training for its HS2 workers at the Engagement and Leadership Immersive Training Experience (Elite) centre in Brackley.
“The whole point is to give people that behavioural experience of a really horrible event without them having to go through it.”Neil Holm, TRU
Mr Dermot Kerrigan, one of ATT’s co-founders and directors, says the central facet of ATT’s work is to create a narrative that gets people to think by stimulating an emotional response. “If you can move someone, you can make them think,” he says.
Indeed, evidence shows that emotional content is not only remembered better, but also aids memory of neural information. In addition, multi-sensory active learning offers both improved and longer recall, and a more accurate reactivation of the memory trace.
In the world of construction and infrastructure projects often the workers on the ground are not academically minded, and as Mr Adam Christopher, also an ATT co-founder, puts it, they have sometimes been told that they do not have a voice. EFKB is pushing back against this perception. Christopher says ATT’s work tries to offer participants the knowledge and the confidence to speak up. That everyone working on the project has gone through the same experience is critical. Kerrigan says all participants are equipped with the same vocabulary and by working through a simulation, albeit a hyper-realistic one, they are shown that when these skills are applied, they can have a positive outcome.
“You make them aware of the consequences of getting this wrong but then you give them some elementary safety and leadership tools and communication skills to make sure they get it right,” he says.
ATT started out around 15 years ago, offering mobile workshops to bring their drama-based training approach to the customer’s worksite. Early clients included Crossrail. London’s Tideway was the first to allow ATT to pitch the centre-based approach, which Kerrigan describes as a gamechanger for the industry. Tideway’s Employer’s Project Induction Centre (Epic) opened in 2015 and the programme is now in its fourth iteration, training over 22,000 people who have worked from initial construction to the current fit-out stage of the new 25km super sewer beneath central London.
The Elite centre for EKFB opened in 2021. The training scenario is indicative of the early stages of the HS2 project. A third centre, Thrive, is located in northeast England. It has been used by Ørsted to induct all personnel working on the Hornsea Two offshore windfarm project in the North Sea and ATT says it remains available for use by other renewables organisations.
Next up is a centre for the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) project. Located in Huddersfield, Trust is on course to open this month and will be used to induct Network Rail (NR) and associated teams working to upgrade the main line across the Pennines between Manchester and York.
Trust will be entirely rail centric. Christopher says the incident used for training takes place on the trackside, with other scenes taking place away from the worksite at home and in project offices, similar to what takes place at Elite.
Offering a realistic and authentic experience is essential to making a connection with the participants.
Mr Neil Holm, TRU director, explains that traditionally health and safety training has followed a process-based approach: if you follow the process, an accident won’t happen. However, he says in his previous work in the defence sector several safety incidents prompted a rethink to focus more on behaviours and visual leadership. “We embraced the workforce, particularly in the context of safety, to gain their trust, which meant we would get better performance and behaviours,” he says.
He describes Trust and what he saw at Epic as taking this work to the next level. “This is about actively training people in behavioural safety as the primacy of your safety system,” he says. Critical to this approach is recreating a major - if fictional - incident. Holm says it is quickly apparent when you are working with someone who has experienced a major incident and someone who hasn’t. “Their approach to safety seems like they have been rewired in their brain fundamentally,” Holm continues. “They never want that to happen ever again.
“This exercise gives that visceral impression of what it’s like to go through a major event, generally based on a fatality. The whole point is to give people that behavioural experience of a really horrible event without them having to go through it. We think that will make a huge change in the way management and supervision and frontline behaviours work.”
Offering a realistic and authentic experience is essential to making a connection with the participants. Close consultation with ATT’s clients, including for TRU’s health, safety and wellbeing director, Mr Ian Grainey, takes place throughout the process of building a training programme.
“As soon as a phrase or term is incorrectly said by one of the characters in our story, you break that connection,” Christopher says. “We start with the incident and then we peel back the layers of all the different people, departments, and levels that could have been involved in that incident. The very last thing we do is the dialogue.”
The production values are extremely high. This is apparent in the sets and spaces used, the quality of the video presentations and the calibre of the actors. Kerrigan says this reflects people’s expectations and experiences of watching Hollywood movies and going to high-end theatre. Anything less, he says, “would look a little shoddy.”
Christopher adds that it has not been difficult to recruit actors to participate in the programme. “We make sure the casting process is right, the scripts are well written, and we make ourselves attractive to professional actors to come and work with us,” he says. “Our business model in that respect allows that to happen.” There are also opportunities for these actors to progress to the facilitator role and lead the engagement sessions.
Inevitably building and operating such a facility is not cheap; the capital expenditure on Trust is roughly £2.7m. The operational costs of training 40 people a day are also significant. And while there is not really a business case, Grainey explains that experience from Thames Tideway shows that upfront investment in health and safety has improved accident statistics over the life of the project. “We used that evidence to form part of our submission to secure the upfront investment,” he says.
Trust is also a flexible facility. It is likely to be used for events to encourage students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to offer advice to schools and the wider community as an electrified railway arrives in the area. TRU is also partnering with NR’s North West and Central and Eastern regions, where the project is taking place, and the facility is expected to act as a wider training centre for the rail industry in the future, offering a long-term legacy for the TRU scheme.
In the more immediate future, there is hope that offering immersive training will provide a greater level of support for the significant number of temporary staff due to work on TRU. Grainey says that the greatest number of safety incidents on the railway involve short-term workers who have been involved with a project for less than seven days. He explains that the goal for TRU is to keep people on the ground for longer, invest in them and create a new culture of working where people have the skills to embrace challenge in the right way when working on site.
Trust is just one facet of TRU’s approach to health and safety. “Safety Champions” will continue to relay the messages learnt through the induction session on site while annual refresher sessions will be offered. Other work includes offering high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) and amenity centres, while a new “night club” concept will serve as a health and wellbeing centre, where employees can seek advice on sleeping patterns, diet and exercise.
“Our argument is that if people are healthy, their head is in the right place and they feel good, they are much more likely to make better safety decisions,” Holm says.
Elite places a particular emphasis on supporting the mental health of employees, an area of health and safety which Kerrigan feels has been overlooked. Men working in construction have one of the highest suicide rates of all industries; there are 10 suicides among people working in construction in Britain every week. Working long hours, often on site away from family and loved ones is cited as one of the particular strains of the job, with 48% taking time off work due to unmanageable stress while 91% have felt overwhelmed and 26% have expressed suicidal thoughts.
The stresses and strains were apparent on each of the characters we met at Elite, all of which were feeling the pressure in some way. This offered scope for discussing their behaviour and actions in the breakout sessions.
Sean received particular attention. We learned that he had an alcohol problem and was suffering from being away from his family. Sessions on conflict resolution and applying different communication techniques were put to the test in the final session where participants were encouraged to ask Sean probing questions to get to the bottom of what was going on. The hope is that the people who have been through Elite will recognise such a scenario in the real world and feel confident to offer the support their colleagues need.
ATT offers a refreshing and inspiring approach to training. Elite participants were on the whole engaged and many felt able to share their own stories of difficulties in the workplace and trauma they had experienced personally, adding to the depth of the experience.
NR is the latest major company to buy into the concept - Holm says he presented it to the board, including chief executive, Mr Andrew Haines, and chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, who he reports are “fully behind” the work taking place.
Grainey is also confident that it will help TRU to change the safety culture around the railway, a process he says could take around two years to complete.
“It’s a commitment from us to start that journey,” he says. “And the way we change the culture is by investing in the people.”