Time to change: another fatality at Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch

Lance Wiggs

On January 6th 2014 I asked When will the next fatality happen at Lyttelton Port, Christchurch?, after a near miss gave clear evidence that the port’s [NZX: LPC] safety systems were not in control.  It was a prediction that was almost certain to become true if it did not make drastic changes.

The sad answer is that on Thuesday,  a person was fatally wounded in a scissor lift accident. That’s a terrifying tragedy for the family and friends of the 40-year-old man who died, and my heart goes out to them.

It’s yet another severe indictment on the owners, directors and management of the port.  

It was clear then, as now, that the safety culture and systems at the site were broken. In January I stated:Two fatalities and this incident are well beyond any normal signalling required for a site to recognise it is in crisis and for major change to occur.

Here’s what I said in an earlier post, in December 2013. Lyttelton Port of Christchurch, this has to stop. 

What should happen?
The Port has faced tremendous challenges following the earthquake, and no doubt the challenges will continue as the rebuild evolves. But challenges to operations should never be a priority over safety.

LPC is a listed company, but 80% is held by Christchurch City Holdings (CCH), who are generally very smart. CCH and the board should be entering crisis management mode, and ensuring that the company responds with appropriate seriousness. At the very least I hope they all understand that this is arguably a lapse in duty of care that could elsewhere remove the site’s “license to operate.”

The board and management team should not rest until they can state unequivocally that the safety systems and culture have changed, and changed for good, and that people on their site can go home unharmed each day.

What would I do?
If this were under my control the port (and any other facility) would be shut down immediately after any fatality, and not reopened until control of fatal risks was regained. I would conduct an all-hands meeting (as suggested by the union) and ask everyone to commit to a tougher set of site safety rules – and enforce them. The rules would include the obligation to stop any observed unsafe work, and I’d hire in external experts to stick around for months to coach everyone through the process. Not everyone will get the new Zero Harm approach, and a small percentage may need to be prohibited from accessing the site.

As an uninformed outsider in any case like this I would stand the CEO down. I would replace him with a new leader with a mandate to place Zero Harm back at the top of the site priorities. I am sure the CEO in this instance is going through hell, and I appreciate that me saying this will not make that better. He may well be superb at his job, but the priorities the board and he agreed to were not correct and an epiphany is required.  So while the CEO may be able to change his approach, he is also somewhat caught in the crossfire here, and in my experience removing the CEO (and at times the management team and/or board as well) is the strongest signal that owners can send to a site that things simply have to change. 

Finding a new CEO who will drive change will not be an easy job, and neither will that person have an easy time of it. He or she will need to work top down and bottom up, and get the support of the Union, employers and all the other players on site to make sure that safety outcomes improve. It’s a challenging job, but one that has been successfully done across a wide range of industries – I’d start by calling recruiters for senior staff in the Australian mining sector.  

The standard is quite simple really – we should all fight to ensure that everyone gets to go home safely at the end of each day. 

Lance Wiggs is an independent consultant providing management, strategy, growth and valuation consulting to industrial, media and internet based businesses. He blogs at Lancewiggs.com

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