March/April 2010


A culture for zero: Courageous leadership program drives Teck employees to make safety their top priority

By H. Ednie

Courageous Safety Leadership session at Teck Coal’s Elkview operations

Five years ago, Robin Sheremeta attended a session on courageous leadership at Teck’s Health and Safety Conference. The presentation by Vern Baker was modelled on the Barrick program developed by Don Ritz. Eager to implement the new ideas he had heard, Sheremeta, then general manager of Teck’s Greenhills coal operation, returned to work ready to make some changes. But, just one week later, on October 20, 2005, a fatal accident occurred on site. Heavy equipment operator Terry Twast was killed when his bulldozer went over the lip of the open pit and crashed to the pit floor. The tragedy turned Sheremeta’s eagerness into a burning drive to create a major cultural change at his operation.

Sheremeta took immediate action, running everyone on site through Baker’s presentation and setting the expectations that Greenhills would go forward with in safety. Deeply shaken by the loss of their friend and colleague, the Greenhills workforce embraced the program and has since achieved 3.5 million hours without loss time incidence (LTI).

Since then, Sheremeta has spearheaded the development of Teck’s Courageous Safety Leadership Program that today has been rolled out across all company sites. He was recently appointed Teck’s first vice-president of health and safety leadership.

“When it comes to safety, my expectations are very high,” says Teck president and CEO Don Lindsay. “In this company, we value people over all other priorities. It is just so important to the culture of the company, to our reputation and just who we are. We are all responsible for safety at Teck.”

The journey begins

In 2008, Lindsay requested that a Courageous Safety Leadership Program be implemented across the company, with Sheremeta at the helm. “We took the work from Teck sites, and the knowledge developed by other companies such as Barrick and Newmont, and we created our own version of Courageous Safety Leadership,” Sheremeta explains.

An eight-hour “journey” was developed taking participants through a logical step-by-step process of evaluating the requirements for safety success. Slides, video clips and group exercises show employees how to:

  • Introduce courage and leadership concepts, and set the stage for a journey, 
  • Work through the concepts of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, 
  • Weave these concepts into an understanding of what culture is and how it impacts safety in an organization,
  • Examine the organization’s challenges and bring to light the issues that must be resolved. 
  • Clearly demonstrate the impact of personal leadership and make an emotional connection to becoming courageous safety leaders.

After focusing on the major elements of the plan, the day wraps up with a video featuring two stories that pack an emotional wallop: one is of a girl who lost her dad at a mine site and the other is of Terry Twast, which features his family, colleagues and friends sharing their memories of him and that fateful night in 2005, and their renewed focus on safety today.

“The real challenge is how to get an entire workforce — a community — to hang on to a commitment to being better tomorrow than you are today,” Sheremeta notes. “That’s the emotional part — to create long-lasting commitment.”

Before leaving the training session, each person must make two commitments to do things differently — one at home and one at work — to increase safety.

The roll-out

In February 2009, every general manager and executive at Teck participated in the eight-hour Courageous Leadership Program. “They had the exact same program as all Teck employees,” Sheremeta says.

Following the executive training, Sheremeta and Greg Brouwer (currently seconded to the International Zinc Association as director, Zinc Nutrient Initiative) conducted an impressive roll-out to all Teck operations. On site, the senior management team, facilitators and union representative gathered for a three-day training session with Sheremeta and Brouwer. The facilitators were responsible for ensuring all employees participated, without exception — a major challenge on sites of 1,000-plus employees and training sessions consisting of only about 25 people at a time.

“Roughly 10,000 people went through the sessions this past year, including contractors on site and companies with particular interests with Teck,” Sheremeta says. “We presented to about 20 Teck sites, including the international operations. Lots of people said it couldn’t be done, but where there’s a will, you make it happen.”

The program’s message has even spread beyond the workplace. “This journey has been fantastic; it’s amazing, the number of people impacted,” says Sheremeta. “One hourly employee in Trail, who became a facilitator, is a midget hockey coach. He’s now taking the kids on his team through the training and they are having the best hockey season in their league history. There are now so many stories like that.”

Keeping safety at the top of the agenda

This year, in his new role, Sheremeta will continue to ensure courageous leadership is the cultural norm at Teck. Current plans for evaluating the success of the program rest in lag indicators — measuring the performance by the number of injuries sustained — though he says it is a depressing way to measure. He aims to develop a strategy to measure leading indicators like people’s commitment. Ultimately, he feels it is the proactive things we do that lead to success in safety and this is where the focus should be.

Two programs will drive his safety programs this year. The first, Visible Felt Leadership, strives to actively engage all employees across the organization in achieving the company’s objectives, particularly in safety. Targets are set for all levels of management — leaders need to be in the field, leading.

The second program will aim to ensure that all Teck employees revisit the courageous leadership journey throughout the year, with monthly 15-minutes videos on each of the steps. “The stories that are coming out from around the company will be used to build the emotional commitment,” says Sheremeta. “We’ll let those employees share in the story of courageous leadership. Each piece is critical to our success.”

One such story is told in a video clip by Toni Foster, an accountant at Teck Coal’s Cardinal River Operations. Having gone through the Courageous Leadership Program, she was determined to do what she could to be a courageous leader for safety. In the video, she speaks about losing Gordon, her husband of 25 years, to an accident at a feed plant in Edmonton. She tells how Gordon was too afraid to speak up at work about safety issues he witnessed, and how she now has to struggle with his death.

“At Teck, we are the human resource, the most valuable thing this company has,” Foster says. “They’ve asked us to be leaders. I don’t know if it takes courage or smarts, but we all have a responsibility. Your families love you; even if you argued with your wife or husband for the past ten days, if you didn’t come home, trust me, their hearts would break.”

Foster’s story will be shared at all Teck operations this year. She says part of her goal for courageous leadership is, “getting up and sharing this story because I believe we learn from example.”

The emotional commitment

In five years, Sheremeta’s role has evolved from general manager of a major coal operation to spearheading vast cultural change throughout an international corporation. The experience has been an incredible journey for him, and Teck has supported him right along the way. “Don Lindsay is such an advocate for safety; Teck is a really good fit for me,” says Sheremeta. “I have found myself in a great situation where the corporation and I agree on values.”

At the end of the day, Sheremeta himself is the perfect example of a courageous safety leader, fully committed to the new culture. “Terry’s accident was really hard on me; just being there was really difficult,” says Sheremeta. “As general manager, you take on the responsibility; it’s hard to go forward. It’s really driven me since then. Each day I need to be able to look in the mirror and know I’m doing what I can to avoid any more accidents.”

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