A visitor to the Pearl GTL site is immediately struck by the number of signs urging workers to be wary of hazards and to drink lots of water. A strong culture of health and safety has played a major part in ensuring the scheme’s successful on-time completion.

“Shell has a core value of safety and welfare of people and any incident is unacceptable,” says Robert Munster, vice president for health and safety for Shell Qatar. Munster has worked on the project for nearly eight years and has been responsible for drawing up and enforcing health and safety policy. For a project the size of the Pearl GTL, which has 52,000 workers on site at peak construction, it was a huge undertaking.

Perilous work

“When we looked at the work required to build the project, we estimated, based on the man hours we were going to use and the road exposure, that we could kill 25-30 people,” says Munster. “This was just based on normal construction industry and regional statistics. It was quite a sobering thing.”

Shell’s response was to study other major regional and global industrial projects to identify the most common causes of accidents. It also asked its contractors to reflect on their most frequent injuries through a series of lessons-learnt workshops. From this, five areas of focus were established: workers’ welfare; training; communication; leadership; and life-critical activities.

Workers’ welfare meant meeting the needs of labourers not just on site, but 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We wanted to create a home away from home, a comfortable living space for the workers,” says Munster.

Shell developed the Pearl Village, a 170-acre residential area, located five kilometres from the project site, with cricket, football, basketball and baseball pitches. It also has a 750-seat cinema, a bank, shops, internet cafes and medical facilities. It is run as a small community, with a mayor and a 250-strong volunteer group that organises sporting competitions and cultural days. In 2010, some 3,000 events were held.

“You can create the physical space, but then you have to make it come alive,” says Munster. Shell and the contractors built accommodation blocks at the village. To ensure the contractors matched Shell’s welfare standards, initiatives such as camp of the month were organised. There were also food monitors to ensure the workers’ nutritional needs were being adequately met. At the height of construction, some 44,000 workers were living in the Pearl Village. Care was taken to look after their mental as well as physical well being.

“It was a large workforce a long way from home, so communication was important,” says Munster. “We set up a group of volunteer aunts and uncles that people could come to if they had a problem and needed to talk.” There were also two full-time psychologists at the village, a free help line and each camp had a medical aid centre. It took a workforce of more than 1,800 to run the village, including 500 cleaners and 1,000 kitchen staff.

The result was a largely contented workforce. “Several contractors noted that the more events there were, the less fights happened,” says Munster. “We had no collective unrest, which was one thing that had really worried us.”

Shell’s emphasis on training means thousands of workers will leave the project with a greater awareness of health and safety. The project was launched at the height of a GCC-wide construction boom, which created a severe shortage of skilled workers. The demand was such that many labourers came to the region with little prior experience and supervisors were often newly promoted. Getting them to meet Shell’s exacting health and safety standards and to buy into the concept of incident and injury-free work was crucial.

Multi-organisation team

This entailed working at all levels with the contractors, including the chief executive officers (CEOs), middle management, project directors and frontline supervisors. About 190 people were involved in the health and safety team, including 35 from Shell itself.

“It was a massive engagement; we met with contractor CEOs every six months to get their discretionary commitment,” says Munster. “We drew up a charter. We provided training and the training centre and the contractor’s commitment was to make people available to us without charging us time.”

Shell recognised the best way to influence performance was through teaching frontline supervisors to work safely and encourage others to do so. More than 6,000 supervisors were given leadership training of 7-11 days, certified by the UK’s Institute of Learning Management. Safety days were held twice a year and to help push the message home, Shell enlisted the help of Indian cricketer Kapil Dev.

“Any loss is unacceptable,” says Munster. “You have to drive that mindset and then behaviours will follow.” Workers attended more than 367,500 training sessions in practical subjects, including working at heights.

Communication was also important. With 60 nationalities among the workforce and up to 30 languages spoken on site, Shell used posters with diagrams rather than words to remind people of safety rules and alert them to hazards. It also offered training courses in seven languages including Hindi, Arabic, Tagalog and Thai. To try to prevent heat stroke among workers during the summer months, Shell introduced a colour-coded flag system, which signalled to workers the current level of heat and humidity and told them how much water to drink and how often to take a break.

Biggest health and safety risks at Pearl GTL

Before the project commenced, Shell identified 10 high-risk activities that were most likely to cause injury and drew up specific safety rules that were to be enforced rigorously. These so-called life-critical activities included excavation and isolation of energised electrical equipment among others. “These were the 10 biggest risks to focus on,” says Munster. “We applied the rules ruthlessly and if people broke them, we held them to account.”

Traffic accidents were a major safety risk, so Shell sought to restrict road transportation throughout the life of the project. It built a materials offloading facility at Ras Laffan port through which it shipped 85 per cent of its materials or about 2 million freight tonnes. Munster estimates this saved 120,000 lorry loads from ports in Doha or Mesaieed. Buses were introduced for all Shell staff to use and contractors were also encouraged to use buses to travel between Doha and Ras Laffan. This saved about 40 million kilometres of potential car journeys.

Accountability was an important element in Shell’s health and safety strategy. “You need to care for people, train them and look after them, but you also need to hold them to account,” says Munster. During the construction of the project, more than 1,000 people were sacked for breaking rules, for violations such as speeding, using a phone while driving, walking under suspended loads, not wearing seat belts. “These things, if they go wrong, they kill you,” says Munster.

This ruthless application of rules paid off. Despite the Pearl GTL being one of the largest and most complex industrial project ever undertaken, Shell was able to set new safety records. In 2010, the onshore project reached 77 million man hours without a lost-time injury – a record for Shell and Qatar. Overall, the project averaged 0.69 lost-time injuries per million man hours.

Instead of the estimated 25-30 fatalities, just one life was lost during the plant’s construction – a flagman was killed while directing traffic.

Increased productivity

The strong emphasis on health and safety had other benefits for Shell than saving lives. Fewer disruptions meant an increase in productivity.

“By focusing on injury prevention and by looking after people, we got a productivity increase of more than 50 per cent during the mechanical construction phase,” says Munster. “It shows there is a human case and a business case for investing in health and safety.”

As the Pearl GTL project moves into the operational phase, the risks are changing and with the introduction of explosive gases into the equation, the dangers are much greater. But Shell’s target remains zero incidents.

“The project has set a benchmark and now we have to make sure those learnings are transferred to the asset as we go forward,” says Munster. “The construction part of the project was only the start of the journey; we have another 30 years to go.”