Talk to me: how to open up conversations about safety and well-being

Ken Temple was a JCB operator, working as part of Newcastle’s Tyne Tunnel refurbishment team, when a call came in asking if he’d fly to Ireland to work on Poolbeg power station. It proved the start of a new career in health and safety from which he’s never looked back.

Eight years on, Ken is an EHS specialist in site operations working for Siemens Power Generation Services. That first day at Poolbeg as an agency worker set him on the path. “I politely challenged one of the staff who was smoking on site, and that got me noticed by the client. I became the site safety representative and a short time later was put through various safety courses and joined Siemens.”

He’s still a big believer in challenging others, and it’s the foundation of a ‘Talk to Me’ campaign that he originated whilst at Drax four years ago with Siemens site manager Richard Armstrong and technical specialist Dave Clement.

“We need to have the courage to step in if we see something that’s not quite right. We can all make mistakes,” says Ken. “Conversely, it’s just as important that if someone approaches you and intervenes, which should always be done in a respectful manner, you thank them for taking the trouble.”

He sees ‘Talk to Me’ as taking a slightly different tack to the ‘Brother’s Keeper’ campaigns popular in industry. “‘Talk to me’ is less of an instruction; it’s about opening up a conversation,” says Ken. He shares a simple animation that shows how our brains can only retain so much, and how being overloaded with information can put us at risk. “It’s how many mistakes happen.”

After ‘Talk to Me’ was piloted at Drax, there were zero safety incidents during the outage. It’s now part of the induction at all Siemens Power Generation Services outages and is promoted around the Siemens world. Last year it won a Siemens UK Gold Champions Award, in recognition of the work done by Ken and others to create a culture where people have the confidence to step in when there is a potential safety issue and, equally, to accept an intervention.

‘Talk to Me’ is a campaign that also shines a light on mental health and well-being. In this traditionally macho industry, Ken wants everyone working on site to be alert to the fact a colleague may be preoccupied with events outside their job. He says talking about mental health would have been rare in the past.

“We work in an environment where there’s a lot of bravado and banter, and where people tend to bottle things up,” believes Ken. Spotting the signs a colleague might be struggling is the subject of another short video he shares at inductions. “I think it resonates with everyone,” he says, adding: “Site teams form a strong bond and stick together through thick and thin. They look after each other, but with mental health they need to know what to look out for.”

He’s pushing for more mental health first aiders – “people who will listen without judgement” – across the business. “Asking if someone is alright takes seconds. It won’t solve things, but we can point people to support options. And being able to listen is a skill that will massively benefit the business in general.”

As well as being a mental health specialist, Ken wants to help people improve their diet. “Most site guys traditionally survive on cheap microwave meals when they’re away from home for weeks at a time, and that can’t be good.” He brought in a nutritionist for the last outage at Cottam, where free fruit was also handed out – a practice adopted at other sites including Drax and Ratcliffe.

In addition, for the first three days of the Marchwood outage earlier this year two exercise bikes were provided by Siemens outside the Zero Harm vehicle. To add a fun element to the spotlight on health, all 300 contractors coming on site were invited to see how far they could pedal in a set time – distances posted on a scoreboard – whilst the energy they generated produced fruit smoothies.

Alongside his passion for mental health and well-being, another major focus for Ken is ensuring that – with an increased reliance on agency staff – everyone working on a Siemens outage adopts the company’s safety culture.

“We can’t compromise on safety. We need everyone to buy into that, which is difficult to achieve in 24 hours. Agency workers have to see it in practice to believe it. Together with the station manager at Marchwood, at our inductions we’ve spoken passionately about Talk to Me, about stopping work if something doesn’t feel right, and about health and well-being.

“We can’t just rely on videos and PowerPoint slides. We need people to really see and feel our commitment. Part of the answer is being careful to mix the Siemens guys who have worked with us for years with the new starters.”

He called in at a Zero Harm meeting two weeks ago where day shift and night shift workers were sharing safety improvement ideas. “When people come up with solutions unprompted, that’s success for me.”

He reflects on a positive shift in recent years: how the opinion of the workforce is now actively sought during site EHS audits. “It used to be a tick box exercise, but now there’s a big focus not only on records but on employee feedback,” says Ken. “If people are working at height, for example, we’ll ask what the training was like, what the harness was like, and how it could be improved.”

He sees himself as an “influencer” who’s there to understand what the client wants, provide guidance to the site team, and who works closely with the Siemens site manager. At Marchwood, he and site manager Dave Heslop began talking about safety challenges long before the outage began. “Dave doesn’t need me to tell him how to manage a site safely,” points out Ken. “He and his site team have years of expertise. I’m here to offer advice, share best practices and provide feedback. It’s very much a double act.”

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