Safety is for everyone, says Australian winner of Global CEO Safety Award

Paulette discusses her personal connection with safety, what drives her every day and, curiously, why muffins are a must-have at morning meetings.

Paulette Halabi, the logistics and safety manager for ABB Electrification warehouses across Australia has an enviable track record. Under her watchful eye, her team has functioned without any recordable injuries since 2016. In the complex, ever-changing environment of warehousing, Paulette’s commitment to safety and her willingness to go above and beyond her leadership duties have not only created a strong safety culture, but also resulted in significant savings for the company.

Fresh off her latest recognition as the 2019 Health & Safety Leader as part of the global CEO Health & Safety Awards, Paulette amid a packed schedule and the faint sounds of a busy warehouse sat down with ABB Conversations to discuss the award, her personal connection with safety, what drives her every day and, curiously, why muffins are a must have at morning meetings.

Congratulations on the award Paulette! Tell us a little bit about what the award and safety mean to you.

Paulette: Thank you! I am very happy about receiving this award. I knew I was nominated, but to have that recognition is overwhelming for me. It validates all of our hard work over the years to ensure that people’s safety takes priority over everything else at our workplaces.

The award is also special as safety is very important and personal to me. When I was young, my mother suffered a serious injury while working at a factory. She broke her back and did significant damage to her knee that caused many medical problems throughout her life. As a child, I saw the physical pain that she suffered but I also witnessed the mental toll that it took on her as a parent because she could no longer work after the incident.

As I grew up and entered the workforce, I realized what responsibility I had in making sure that no person felt the way that my mother did and also made up my mind to ensure that no child of a working parent felt the way I did when my mother came home with an injury. Had there been better safety measures in place at the factory, then my mother’s accident could have been prevented. This personal experience drives me every day to give my best in ensuring the safety of our workers.

That is a touching story. From your experience, what do you say it takes to lead a safety culture at work?

Paulette: For me building a safety culture is about making sure that I and the people who work for me are aware about what is happening around us. I cannot be out there holding everybody’s hand whilst they do their work, so I provide them with the right tools and the right knowledge to make them feel empowered to make the right decision whether I’m around the warehouse or not.

We start our day with a team meeting to discuss safety and any issues that might have come up that someone feels they want to discuss. We believe in open conversations because sometimes one person may be able to detect a genuine safety concern that another person may have overlooked. Over the last few months, we have implemented a little segment in the morning meeting called “My hazard story” where anyone can report a hazard and we discuss it and arrive at ways that we can resolve it. The idea is to see the workplace through a different perspective, and this has worked very well for us. We even go over incidents from outside our organization, for example, a serious accident caused whilst using a forklift. We study the chances of such incidents occurring at our warehouses and take all measures to prevent it from happening.

Are these meetings also where you serve up your famous muffins?

Paulette: (Laughs) When you show that you care about what is happening at the warehouse and are not just a person fulfilling a role, it gets others interested in your mission. It’s the same dynamics with safety. I believe if you get people interested in discussions around safety and if you show that you are vested in their well-being and are not just ticking a box, then they sit up and take up the conversation with more vigour. Personally, I take the time to sit with my team for lunches and have that interaction and connection because I’ve found that this is the best way of understanding what the issues are with regards to safety, without having to probe for information. Often, health and safety can become secondary concerns and people may not be too willing to point out safety issues.

Also, my guys just love food! So, when I do come to work with something, they get very excited. They come in for the meeting, they eat, and we have a good chat. It’s a nice way to start the day and it brings a different dimension to what we are trying to achieve. At the end of the day I don’t want them to feel like they just come to work, run through the motions and leave. People react very differently when they know that they have someone who cares for their safety. It also gives me peace of mind. I work at warehouses across Australia, the farthest being 5,000 km away so when I’m travelling or visiting another warehouse, I know that my team will look after each other and make sure that they are safe.

The current global health crisis has made safety a 24/7 task, how has that changed your perspective about safety and what are you doing to make sure that you are safe?

Paulette: It has been stressful for those of us who have to be at work during this time. It is a big responsibility to have people at work and ensure that the right procedures are in place to keep them safe. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well-prepared you are or how fool-proof your safety procedures are. With the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus, we have heightened our safety measures and protocols to make sure we take every precaution to keep our employees safe. We have implemented new social distancing procedures and routine cleaning of workstations, forklifts and anything that is used across the team.

As a logistics team, our warehouses handle a lot of inbound and outbound shipments every day, so we have set up a holding bay where incoming carton deliveries are sanitized and stocked for 24 hours to make sure that nothing resides on those boxes. In the matter of urgent deliveries, we have personal protective gear for everyone, so they stay safe. We also meet up every morning to reiterate the safety protocols and see if we need to make any changes.

A key aspect of safety that we discuss every day is mental health and well-being. We make sure that everyone is coping well under the current situation. People’s circumstances may be very different now and they may be facing issues such as coming to work while having children at home. We try to have those discussions and keep the lines open between everyone in the team so that if anyone needs additional support, they know that we are there to help. My team is like a family and they look after one another to make sure that they are well. If anyone has underlying anxieties or concerns that they want to discuss, they know that they have that opportunity here.

What is your advice to other safety managers across ABB as we navigate the health crisis?

Paulette: I believe it is important to have very clear rules around what people need to do to maintain safety, especially in high-activity zones like factories and warehouses. The simpler the rules are, the better they are to understand. People will be more likely to accept easy-to-follow rules and implement them. I also believe that it is important to make your employees a part of the safety process and tailor it according to your needs. In the beginning, we had many proposals for maintaining safety, but we had to make sure to keep only those that were pertinent to our work. There can be scenarios where the safety measure itself poses a threat. So, work with everyone involved in creating your safety culture at work.

How does one embed safety in everything we do?

Paulette: I think it is the little things that matter the most whilst ensuring safety and it is the people at the warehouse or the factory floor who notice these issues better than anyone else. So, it is important to speak up and bring even the smallest concern for discussion. Since 2018 we have conducted open forum discussions with everyone working at the warehouses. We held a whiteboard session where people got to speak about the risks they faced and understand where we as safety managers could do better. We noticed that there were a few big-item concerns, but there were many little issues that we either needed to fix or improve upon. We worked on all of these and communicated our decisions to everyone.

The most significant outcome of this process was that it made our employees feel part of the process of creating a safety culture and gave them the buy-in because they were raising concerns and saw them being actively addressed. During the first discussion, there were a lot of problems highlighted but as we progressed the dynamics of the meeting shifted from being a space to speak about problems to now discussing how we can improve on our safety.

Paulette Halabi, ABB Australia’s logistics and safety manager based in Sydney, recognised as Global Safety Leader of the Year by ABB CEO, Björn Rosengren.

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About the author

Joanne Woo

Storyteller & head of communications for ABB Australia. From large global conglomerates to fast growing start-ups, Joanne Woo has led diverse marketing and communications teams across energy, mining, aviation, transportation, healthcare and technology sectors. Joanne is also a mentor for the Superstars of STEM program which aims to smash society’s gender assumptions about scientists and increase the public visibility of women in STEM.
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