Impossibilities equal Opportunities

This is a story about a personal accomplishment that very few if any thought possible and my desire to elevate the importance of mentorship, training and respect for the inexperienced worker.

Setting the stage

Shell Canada Limited and their  Waterton Natural Gas processing facility pioneered a grand-scale, asbestos abatement program that lasted 3 1/2 years.  The abatement program was the result of the  failings brought on by previous plant management to address ongoing asbestos issues through risk management, poor maintenance practises and lack of maintenance contractor accountability.

The issue of asbestos management was brought to a head when construction workers refused to work in an asbestos laced environment during a major three month retrofit.  The irony of this situation was the contractor who was supplying the workers for the turnaround was also the maintenance contractor responsible for the well being of the plant and the ensuing asbestos issues.

The plant management team were in a no win situation and called for an outside contractor to take on some of the asbestos abatements so the turnaround could continue.  Their major complaint was the non performance of the maintenance contractor personnel and the poor estimation of the asbestos issues that were delaying the construction schedule.

SCL called me to site and showed me a job on their critical path schedule.  This vessel was one of twelve very large sulfur condensers.  It was leaking due to the interaction of the acid gas and metal shell and would require a very large repair.  (vessel size 15′ diameter x 40′ long)

The Shell employee who was assigned to our work suggested a time line and a crew size and I immediately countered with no rebuttal.  After the mobilization and orientation we finally got down to work on day four. The first assignment was competed ahead of schedule but by then we had a basket full of requests and the SCL turnaround schedule was lost.

I struggled with my crew to get the work done while appeasing the many disgruntled workers and attempting to improve on the critical path schedule. We estimated every abatement and gave firm turnover dates to our client.  We never missed a deadline, never had an incident and the Shell management team began to appreciate our efforts.  We pushed on for three months, then six and the work kept coming.  The turnaround delays cost the plant an additional nine months of production loss and a manager his position.

In the project review that followed, many details were identified that created this huge oversight.  From there a dialogue was established and plans put in place to mitigate these issues in the future.

First and foremost was the issue around managing asbestos.  I was part of these discussions as well as a consultant engineer and SCL employees.  I put it very simply as complacency and identified where changes had to be implemented.  I then put forward my thoughts of a properly managed abatement program that would ultimately result in long term payback to SCL.  My plan was untested, had no history and unverifiable until the program was initiated.  It included novel ways to abate ACM that would reduce the input costs substantially and increase the volume immensely.  I found an audience and the credit is due to the client SCL and their long term vision of NO Harm To People and the money that they were willing to invest.

In hindsight, I can see that the money spent on asbestos mitigation was small in comparison to the lost production dollars and potential for future litigation.

SCL provided me with a liaison who managed a conduit between the plant personnel and our combined plan of attack.  In the end, this person was never fully recognized for his efforts and immense assistance he provided throughout the project.  Further to that, SCL hired a consulting Engineer to do the financial forecasting and reporting back to management and onsite hygienists, both employee and third party to monitor our work practices and results.

I combined these resources with a financial budget, onsite estimation, scheduling, purchasing and infrastructure to make this a project success.  All the while, this was an untested, unproven theory, but the people believed in me and what I was telling them.

What types of asbestos did we encounter in a sour gas plant that was built in 1963 – 65. Our bulk was Amosite and Chrysotile although we found pockets of Crocidolite and one sample of Tremolite.

Our abatement environment consisted of working at heights, with crane and man basket, articulating man-lifts, and scaffolding.   Much of the work was elevated and the workers experienced abatement conditions in confined spaces, in close proximity to operating equipment, steam, sour gas, plus other contractor employees, Shell employees.  Add plant upsets, turnarounds and in temperature ranging  from  -40C to +50C and winds of over 100 kph.

As a sidebar note; these employees managed a successful abatement over a 6 six hour duration on a 48″ diameter pipe with a gaping hole during the execution of the grand asbestos abatement plan.

The hole was created by highly poisonous SO2 gases that ate through the steel pipe.  The acid gas was spewing out of the hole at 450 degrees F.  We destroyed a number of full face supplied air masks in the performance of this work but prevented a major pollution catastrophe and plant shutdown.

We managed two very large abatements for SCL on two different locations over the course of eight years.  In the case of Waterton, we removed 800 – 1000 tonnes of ACM and filtered over 45 million gallons of contaminated water.  The plant operations were never shut down to accommodate asbestos abatement and we never caused a plant upset or production loss over the eight years at either location.

In the past, contractors and owners would not attempt this work because they felt they could not manage the seemingly conflicting goals of zero tolerance safety, asbestos regulatory demands and cost control.  But that is where Impossibilities equal Opportunities.

The Inexperienced Worker

It might surprise many that I chose to hire a completely inexperienced crew for this work with only a few seasoned hands to mentor them.  During the execution phase of this program, I was invited to speak at a conference of 350 alliance contractor representatives and SCL senior management to explain my phylosophy and rationale behind our many successes on this project.  The next part of this story is taken from parts of my presentation and describes the how and why I did what I did.


How We Fail to Respect the Needs of the Inexperienced Worker”

Although the inexperienced worker is necessary for cost control, they are often viewed as an unwanted safety liability. Re-occurring worksite injury and the majority of incidences today involve the inexperienced worker. It is easy to blame inexperience for our inability to meet cost and safety standards.

The overall average age of my entire workforce, including myself (54), our SCL liaison (53) and Safety (50) is 24 years of age and 95% of new hires come with no construction experience. Combined with a hostile work environment, this could be a recipe for disaster. However, we have an exceptional safety record at Waterton.

How We Fail to Respect the Needs of the Inexperienced Worker is the topic of my discussion this morning.

I have selected this person because I see the untapped potential of this person and I have a desire and dedication to lead them into the future. A future that can be very rewarding or very short lived depending on my commitment and my ability to pass on good information.

In the next 20 minutes, I will first discuss simple leadership techniques. Next, I will provide another insight into the way a positive work environment is the second essential factor for success, focusing strictly on the needs of the inexperienced worker. Finally, I have allowed for 5 minutes at the end of my presentation to address any questions you may have.

 Visible Leadership and the Inexperienced Worker

In my experience, we fail to understand the extent of a worker’s need for guidance and clarity and the time that is required to achieve this comfort zone. When it comes to all employees, I say “Never Assume”. Invisible leadership generates miscues and accidents. It’s a hands-on business, which requires hands-on leadership.

When I start a project, big or small, I wish to send a message immediately to the people coming on board. Not a fist pounding rant about Do’s and Don’ts but a few twists to common practices that pay big dividends.

 Lunchroom Trap – a conduit to understanding RESPECT

I make time to wash the lunchroom tables and clean the floors at the start of any project. I allow this routine to go on until the whole crew is getting comfortable with my actions, which doesn’t take too long. There’s always one person in the group who is willing to take the bait and complain about the lunchroom condition. I use this opening to define many tangible parameters. By setting an example in front of many, my message is clear. These are my expectations and this is how it is done. Remember, no assumptions, no misinterpretations.

. Toolbox Meetings – creating visible leaders

Another common fixture at the workplace is the toolbox meeting. I have been through countless toolbox meetings where the supervisor sets and dictates the agenda. The worker relies on this information and ceases to think about his own environment and those close to him. Hands-on leadership establishes your own high safety standards clearly to the inexperienced worker.

A good toolbox meeting combines supervisory guidance, has full worker participation and understanding. As a visible leader, I facilitate open discussion between all participants, to create an enthusiastic learning environment about safety and good work habits. This provides inexperienced workers with the confidence to take ownership of their safety and be visible safety leaders on site.

 Look Back System – accountability for the inexperienced worker

I feel the current shotgun style training methods fails to target the unique needs of the new worker. I say, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine being blasted with a lifetime’s worth of safety messages, in a boring orientation, for the first time and expect to remember them all?

After it’s all over, he or she writes a test, gets 80% in a no-fail course and the new employee comes back worksite certified. To me, this inexperienced person is on track for a wreck. As an employer, can you blindly put this person to work, with confidence?

An invisible leader lacks personal interest in the worker. Recognize the individual characteristics of the new worker, especially when it comes to training.

I think of the analogy where the new worker is like a sponge. A sponge can only absorb so much before it becomes saturated. Every now and then, you have to squeeze a little out, just to get more in. Therefore I have developed a personal Look Back System.

This commitment-intense program is designed to temper a new worker’s thirst for knowledge, resulting in improved worker performance and life-long skills.

My first step in the Look Back is to review individual test errors and material. By identifying mistakes and consulting with the employee early, it is easier to change safety behavior. The next step in the Look Back System is designed to improve worker confidence and accountability. I will create advanced “what-if” scenarios based on real workplace situations.   I want the worker to recognize his ability and apply his depth of knowledge to develop a safe work plan. This plan is analyzed for potential hazards in a team environment and we develop ownership for the project. The Look Back system provides the resources to meet the needs of the worker and provide support for additional learning

Never assume new worker competence. The Lunchroom trap, toolbox meetings and the Look Back System are three proven examples of Visible Leadership that I use. I encourage you to try them or find new ways to innovate old practices. Don’t assume your employees have the same level of accountability and responsibility for safety as you do.

 Fostering a Positive Work Environment

 I have learned that the inexperience worker needs a positive work environment consistent with their unmatched enthusiasm and potential. The ultimate purpose is to make the new worker feel like they are part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Traditional working environments fail to adapt to these needs of the inexperienced worker.

My personal success is based on the ability to design a positive work atmosphere that provides three things: a peer-based relationship between the manager and the employee, a forum for liberal communication and nurture a pride-based work attitude.

 Laying the Groundwork for a Positive Work Environment

Too many managers delegate information from the top down and communicate assumptions. You cannot expect a new hire to perform his duties correctly when he is working on assumptions.   I question new workers and listen for responses that would indicate if they feel threatened, intimidated, overwhelmed, or inadequate or overconfident.

It is my goal to make the new worker feel at ease, as an equal, in their new environment. I will say, ” I read lips not minds” – just to reinforce the importance of their feedback. You must make the commitment to establish a relationship built on communication. Delegation and authoritative influence can only serve to construe your message before you begin to deliver it.

Sending the Right Message (improving the quality of your communication)

Interview Stage

The best opportunity to send the right message is during the interviewing process. To a potential employee, a regular interview only tells them that you care about their physical capabilities, as a temporary warm body. In return, you pay them money.

Use your skills to go beyond the basic questions and look for answers. Probing questions and follow-up comments tell them that you care and are committed to their future. Use the interview to get your message across, and never assume.


 The pay cheque is a common place for the employer to send the wrong message to the employee. I reward this worker well so I can pass on good training and lifelong skills.  No one is ever paid to get hurt, so don’t pay new employees like they are expendable. Let them know that they a long-term investment that is hired for intelligence and a desire to perform. In your situation, understand the nature of the work and the worker and pay accordingly.


When awarding a new worker for a significant achievement it is crucial to send the right message. Personal milestones like safety awards and passing grades for apprenticeship reflect a new worker’s growth and my continuing care and commitment to them. I recognize milestones as an important tool and I reinforce this message, not diminish it.

It is common practise to pull another safety award out of a cardboard box and throw it at your employee. What kind of message are you sending them?   Attach some pomp and ceremony to any and every milestone. Public announcements, dinners and personal compliments all work. Never forget that recognition is personal and continuous and however small is returned in worker attitude and performance. Sending the wrong message produces the opposite effect.

Messages are perceived, implied and construed and the RIGHT message is lost. My message to the inexperienced worker is simple. I’m committed to building lifelong learning skills and about building a long-term working relationship with you. I care about a project completed on budget, on time, without accident or injury. Due to the importance of my message I want to make sure this message is understood beyond question. The wrong message from the manager to the employee only leads to a negative work environment

Developing a Cultural Identity at the Workplace (Pride-based attitude)

Our culture has unique artifacts and language that help to identify us as Canadians. We have things like the Maple Leaf, Hockey or the word “eh” and our pride is evident to all.

I bring this concept to the job site and create our own language. To an outsider, asbestos abatement is one of the dirtiest, labor intensive, most hazardous jobs in the workplace.

On my worksite, we refer to this dirty, labor-intensive and hazardous occupation as a precise operation requiring the knowledge and skills of a brain surgeon. This analogy is used everyday as one way to increase and maintain worker pride.

If I see complacency amongst the workers, I will institute the Loonie Pot for the new hire and the Toonie Pot for the experienced. My workforce is not allowed to retreat from established standards. Not wearing the correct personal protective equipment or following poor work practices will cost the employee a Loonie or Toonie for each and every error. I am associating a penalty with discipline, without threat or intimidation. I will always discuss the penalty in a group setting, and how that error will affect us as individuals, our employer and to the owner of the worksite.

So, why develop a cultural identity for the new worker? Simple techniques like unique workplace language; creates pride in an otherwise ugly occupation. Pride becomes the driver for the inexperienced worker to seek new learning.   I have eliminated irrelevant outside distractions in a separate work identity for the inexperienced worker. Developing an identity for the new worker allows you to combine enthusiasm for learning with mental discipline. By respecting the intellect of this person in a positive environment, you can now unlock the potential of the inexperienced worker.


Seemingly, the worker receives all the benefits from a positive work environment.

A peer-based relationship with the manager, clear information transfer and pride in one’s work are a reminder of these needs that are satisfied. However, the benefits go both ways.

As a manager, a positive work environment is the thinly disguised vehicle I need to pass on my own personal care and commitment for the job at hand without sounding redundant. A pride-based attitude is the feedback tool I need to monitor whether or not my message is getting across. The quality of the comments and questions I receive from the inexperienced worker correlates to their own care and commitment for the workplace.

I can take this quality input and use it to better meet the needs new worker. And therefore, the ultimate benefit from a management perspective is a self-evolving work atmosphere that makes the new worker feel like they are part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

Final Thoughts

In my presentation today, I have touched on simple practices that will demonstrate visible leadership and enhanced communication to better meet the needs of the inexperienced worker.

I am looking at the people who will have to carry this message forward; a message that will bring life long skills to future workplace leaders.

You have the window of opportunity to make changes. Changes that will put life back into a workplace system that has become stagnant and complacent.

You have to apply the words and meaning of responsibility and accountability in visible leadership and communication.

You will have to embrace change, as a way of doing business or your window of opportunity will close.

Thank you for your time and patience. I want to thank SCL for the invitation to participate in today’s workshop.   I want to thank Shell Canada Ltd. again for the work environment and resources to practice my beliefs and share my successes as they pertain to the inexperienced worker. Thank you

Teaching from experience

The Lunchroom trap explained

The lunchroom trap is a method I use to teach workers respect. Respect for themselves and each other.

When a person decides that the lunchroom condition is not to their satisfaction, I will stop all discussion and ask the question? What makes you think the lunchroom needs improvement. There is usually a non-descript answer and I continue with some history about the different lunchrooms that I have encountered.

I tell them of lunchrooms where workers had a small section cleared off, just enough to place there sandwich down without it getting dirty.

I explain to the group that no worker or group of workers has to be exposed to these conditions.

If the workers are leaving sandwich wrappers, pop cans and newspapers around I will tell them that they are inconsiderate of others. We can recycle paper and metal. We do not have to make a janitor feel demeanoured just by leaving our mess for him to clean up. We have show respect for others.

The lunchroom floor is another area where I spend equal time. I explain that all these forgotten items do not sell our performance on site and we have to lead by example. I tell the entire crew and supervision who was first to do the clean up. It was I. I tell the worker that I am showing them the respect that they deserve. Now that there is an identifiable issue around the lunchroom conditions, it is their turn to start showing the proper respect.

The tangible parameters are spread out to include respect for the rental company who supplied the lunchroom facilities, to the owner who is paying for it and to our employer. It even goes further. The standards of cleanliness we show in our lunchroom environment will be carried on into the workplace, where cleanliness and good housekeeping must come second nature.

The Toonie Pot

This practise evolved to the point where a worker admitted to an error in judgement or work practise and just went to the pot and tossed in a coin or more if required.  The money was collected and every Christmas, donated to a local charity of the workers choice.

Worker pride

The employees soon discovered how important there work was and how cutting edge as they had the opportunity to teach Alberta OH/S inspectors my methods and work practises that were considered impossible.  The other personnel on site were so confident of our employees skills, that they were working in very close proximity to high risk, open air abatement without respiratory protection.  The employees worked through three turnarounds at Waterton and never missed a deadline or held up schedule.  They proved themselves over and over again with pride and competence.

The maintenance contractor lost work for twelve insulators and asbestos workers by the halfway point in the first turnaround.  Our client could not accept the difference in worker performance and I watched those workers marched off the plant with a SCL escort.

We removed over ten tonnes of steel, wood plank, nuts and bolts, flanges and valves left behind from past work.  These were all items left in the pipe racks in elevated areas within the plant and buildings over fifty years. This alone saved many countless near miss incidents or possibly far more serious injury.

The workers were recognized many times for their great performance.  They received custom fit leather jackets twice, multiple dinners with their significant other as well as SCL swag to cover a few awards.

The main group of fourteen individuals whom I hired stayed together for two and a half years.  We lost one to a different trade but the balance went through trade school and picked up on at least three more not certified trades.  They are still working but are all now site and project supervisors.