Staff feel the heat in a courtroom drama

Managers at Morrison Utility Services have been taking part in a hard-hitting training exercise that aims to hammer home the personal consequences of serious site incidents. Being in the dock, they discovered, was the ultimate reality check.

Imagine standing in the dock being cross-examined about a job on which you were working that went tragically wrong. This is the scenario faced by a selection of managers from Morrison Utility Services’ (Morrison US) several times a year.

Luckily it is part of a hard-hitting training exercise that recreates a courtroom scene following investigation of a major incident in which an operative has been seriously or fatally injured.

Make Time for Safety, now in its sixth year, is contributing towards the company’s health and safety record, evidenced by its RoSPA Gold Medal award-winning status. The Accident Frequency Rate (AFR) has also improved from 0.27 in 2003/04 to 0.12 for 2008/09.

Paul Kerridge, safety, health, environment and quality director for Morrison US, explains: “The idea behind the courtroom scene is to replicate the gravity and legal process that would come into play following a serious incident. It enables us to create a situation that is all too real for our managers.

“Despite the fact that it’s clearly a training scenario, the stress and emotion it evokes does the job for us in emphasising safety must come first.”

In total, more than 400 managers have attended Make Time for Safety sessions. Each session involves a maximum of 18 people and three are randomly selected to play the role of witnesses to an incident. The three selected “witnesses” are each given a short overview on the session before being assigned their roles and presented with the scenario. They enter the courtroom and are questioned in the witness box, a move intended to be faithful to the legal process.

Ron Wells, Morrison US’ retained barrister for the training session, conducts the court case, and his brief has been designed to draw out, via questioning, the extent of the managers’ health and safety knowledge.

Although recreated to be a credible version of real life events, the courtroom scene will only give a taste of the real thing. The questioning of the witnesses lasts for ten to 15 minutes, and while it can be stressful and rapid fire, it is not intended to shake confidence or pass judgement on individual performances. The objective is to heighten awareness of health and safety in the managers’ minds and reinforce the accountability message.

The remaining managers form the jury and are asked to deliver their verdict following the Barrister’s questioning.

Kerridge says: “The questioning seems quite tame to start with but it soon gathers pace. The witnesses are asked about the importance that they personally give to health and safety and what their obligations are under our company policy. They are directly asked whether they feel that they were responsible for the incident, which always results in some interesting responses.”

Recent witness Anthony Lane, a senior site agent, says: “It’s daunting – the situation felt very real because it’s taken very seriously. Everyone else is there watching you too, which adds to the pressure.”

If found guilty by the jury, the witnesses are told what their fate would be in a real prosecution, be it a fine or a custodial sentence. Either way it means a criminal record, which for many is the point of realisation.

Lane continues: “For me it brought home the reality of the situation. If someone was killed or injured, what would my responsibilities be? We think about safety all the time but this puts everything into perspective, as you understand what the personal consequences of a serious incident would be.”

Kerridge says: “We conduct these sessions all over the country and it is revealing to see how different teams react to the questioning process. The outcome is always the same eventually though, and the skill of our barrister is not to be underestimated in that.”

Senior managers and clients are also invited to get involved in the Make Time sessions. It is an indication of the priority status given to health and safety at board level. The courtroom session reinforces the issues in the minds of senior managers as the mock incident could become a reality.

“That really helps to engage everyone in this process, as the consequences would reverberate across our business. Only recently the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it is prosecuting a company under the new Corporate Manslaughter Act, which happened to be for a collapsed excavation,” says Kerridge.

He stresses: “We need people to think about what they are doing all the time. Sitting people down in a classroom and telling them won’t work, they have to feel the responsibility for themselves.”

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