July 07, 2016
This story is based on a recent event on a worksite in Asia…
It’s early Saturday morning and Somchai, a young Thai foreman, is tired, but alert. Promoted to his position and transferred recently, along with his crew, from a civil worksite to this old refinery in South Asia, he realizes he is anxious much of each working day. His crew is good and familiar to him, but not very experienced, and of course they vary in temperament and personality. They are not used to working in a crowded process plant with such strange smells, hissing steam and towering racks of equipment. It makes him nervous to think that not only does he have to keep up the pace to meet his work goals, he also has to make sure his crew, who feel like his friends and relatives, are not hurt.
This morning as usual he received his production goals and the topics for his pre-start talks from his managers. His managers are from Japan; the official language spoken on the site is English. Somchai has learned a few words in English – enough to get by in a market or restaurant, or at work when he confirms to his Japanese manager, that he understands the tasks to be done and the hazards to be overcome. One of his many duties is translating for his crew, who only speak Thai.
He always communicates the morning topic seriously, be it wearing proper gloves, a reminder to his welders to wear both goggles and a face shield, or staying hydrated. He makes sure to speak loudly, over the continuous clang and din of the churning refinery, and asks questions to make sure his workers listen and are alert as they get to work. The talk and their responses energize him, but he is still nervous as his crew split up into two’s and three’s and get to work.
At a few minutes past ten in the morning, Somchai noticed a harsh sour smell. Then he heard a loud whoosh as a nearby refinery flare erupted, sending flames and gasses high into the air. “Certainly this can’t be normal”, he thought. Just then a loud siren wailed. He and his crew froze in fear…
Ten days earlier…
During the Wednesday morning stretching exercises, Yoichi Shiga remembered that at the end of the month he would be 65 years old. No wonder it seemed hard to keep up with the exercise leader! Perhaps he should walk the jobsite to stretch his legs some more before addressing the list of issues crowding his desk and in-box. He usually found that a site walk cleared his head and provided real-time, first-hand knowledge of the changing site and work fronts.
More than 30 years of working in construction had taught Shiga to manage with a commanding leadership style, absolute knowledge and certainty and giving firm orders. Somehow, just one day of reflection in the Leadership course challenged all that. Of course, he is an effective and accomplished manager – his position and title in a successful, global company attest to that. But the demands on him and his job had increased in recent years. Continuous improvement in quality, and more recently safety, called for new ways of leading. The diverse, younger workforce with varied skills and backgrounds do not seem to be motivated to rise to the challenges he poses or respond to his traditional ways.
Recently Shiga had taken a course in Safety Leadership. He resisted going to the course until his name was too high on the list of those who had not yet attended. Anticipating it to consist of procedures and tasks demanding ever greater compliance, he reluctantly gave up a valuable day he was sure would be wasted. Surprisingly, the program opened his eyes.
He headed out on his walk, first silently arguing with, and then reflecting on what he had heard in the course and if he was too old to learn new ways.
Reaching the farthest pipe-racks of the job site, he came upon the Thai crew of pipers and welders who had joined the job in the last few months. The young supervisor was leading his pre-start talk and seemed to be doing so with a great deal of energy. Referring to body harnesses, he gestured emphatically while explaining loudly in his native language about the danger to be overcome and the need to tie-off at all times, especially when it is awkward or more difficult to do so.
Shiga then noticed that the supervisor challenged the crew, drew out a sleepy-eyed worker to repeat the instructions back to the group. Then he challenged another to point out where he would be working and what he could, and could not, hook onto safely. When that worker responded well, the supervisor thanked and praised him in front of the crew.
Inspired by the supervisor’s passionate engagement, Shiga drew close, then was surprised when the supervisor turned, introduced himself by name and asked if Shiga would like to address the crew.
Not prepared, he stammered at first, then noticing the five-story tall flare adjacent to the nearby pipe rack, he pointed and asked, “Who knows what that is?!”
The crew, startled by Shiga’s tone and not understanding a word he spoke, only stared in the direction of his outstretched arm. “Who Knows?!” he repeated. Somchai was able to understand enough to respond, “a stack, a flare.”
“Good! What does it do?!” Again silence.
Shiga responded, “It is a flare that will release gas and burn very bright if there is a big problem in the plant. It is a way to blow off pressure and gas for the refinery should there be a process problem.”
“When it goes off there will be a loud siren. What do you do then?!” After a few moments’ hesitation, Somchai remembered the training he had been given as a foreman just two months earlier, “Go to that shelter (100 meters), just there. It has a flag on it.”
“Very good! Please translate for your crew. Make sure they know it’s dangerous, poisonous and hot. But it is very high and they will have time to escape. Do not panic, do not run!”
As Somchai was translating Shiga recalled the leadership training. When Somchai finished, Shiga continued in a soft but no less serious tone, “I want you to know my name, I am Shiga-san. I am the construction manager, but more importantly, I am in charge of safety. I saw a flare like that release when I was a worker and I was very scared. You will be scared too should this one release, but that is ok. Look out for each other. Make sure everyone goes to the shelter together and take a count when you get there. You will receive more instructions then. I want you to be safe. That is most important to me.”
Again, Somchai translated. He then added in his own words, “I will look out for you; that is my job. I ask that you look out for me, too.” His crew responded with applause for their supervisor and Shiga.
“Arigatou! Be safe today! KobKhun Khrap!” Shiga-san continued on his walk, buoyed by what he saw, and moved by the exchange. His heart swelled with feeling. The workers had listened intently, then thanked him warmly with big smiles and even applause! Somehow, in teaching others and sharing himself, not giving orders, he had learned something.
Back to Saturday morning, ten days later…
Somchai, responding to the siren, shook off the fear and realized that he knew exactly what to do. Shiga-san’s words rang more loudly than the siren – do not panic, do not run, look out for each other and proceed immediately to the shelter. He blew his whistle and even though only those crew members close by could hear, it was enough. His welders were purposefully shutting down their torches and turning valves to close off the gas. Fitters were chocking pipes, securing chains, then walking quickly to the shelter.
Barely minutes passed when amidst the others crowding the shelter, Shiga-san greeted Somchai and his crew. “I am glad to see you. All are here?”
“We will be back at work soon. Make sure your guys get a rest and thank them for me. Tell them I will come by later today to see them and make sure their workplace is safe.”
“We look forward to seeing you sir.”
“Khun Somchai, please call me Shiga-san.”