A review of internal communication channels at QR National Coal found that there was no single and effective method or system for communicating critical and important information to employees. This posed a significant business risk with the potential that employees may not receive or understand information that would prevent them from injuring themselves or others.
Members of the QR National Coal Communication Team worked with stakeholders throughout the business to design, develop and implement an internal communication system. The Critical and Important Information Communication System is custom built to address the significant communication challenges of the business and to meet our rail safety accreditation obligations.
The system was launched on Monday 1 March 2010 and is used on a daily basis to communicate critical and important information to employees. An evaluation shows that the system is sound and that users are happy with it. The business risk has been successfully mitigated. Application of the system in some areas of the business can be improved and the Communication Team is working with stakeholders throughout the business to achieve this.
A desktop audit of communication channels within the business identified a high level of communication clutter, inconsistent and unclear communication throughout the business and a lack of understanding and accountability for communicating with employees. Delivery of communication was in nearly all instances via printed material.
Field surveys showed that employees could not prioritise information and often had no knowledge that a communication had been issued. Surveys also showed that little face-to-face communications took place within the business.
In relation to safety and other important business information, this situation was unacceptable. It meant that employees could potentially be injured because poor communications practices meant critical and important information was not being adequately communicated. This posed a significant business risk.
To address this situation, the Communication Team worked with stakeholders throughout the business to develop and implement an internal communications system tailored to the business’ uncommon communication needs and challenges.
Extensive consultation was undertaken with key stakeholders through surveys, one-on-one meetings and group discussions. Stakeholders were asked to consider what they needed from a critical and important information communication channel and why existing communication channels were failing.
- risk managers
- line managers
- workplace health and safety site representatives
- administrators (responsible for up keeping noticeboards)
- learning management system/training administrators
A desktop survey of issued communication was also conducted to determine who what was being issued, to whom and from whom.
Key findings of the existing processes and channels included:
- No guarantee that risk was mitigated by existing processes as we had no confidence or record that information was being communicated to employees or that it was understood.
- Information was not communicated in a timely way.
- Multiple communication channels were causing confusion and left employees unable to prioritise between pieces of information.
- Communication was not targeted and people often received information that was not relevant to their work.
- A reliance on written communications.
- There was confusion around roles and responsibilities with a lack of clarity about who could approve and distribute communication to employees.
- Lack of distinction between safety and other information.
- Information was not being embedded in the business in a systematic and sustainable way.
- There was no mechanism for sharing information within the business or between QR businesses.
- Multiple processes meant that communication delivery could not be audited.
- Noticeboards were not kept up-to-date.
Target publics included all QR National Coal employees. For the purposes of targeting critical and important information communication at relevant work groups, we defined employees in the following groups:
Taking into consideration our learnings from the research and the obligations of the Rail Safety Act, we determined that the new communication system must have the following requirements:
- Accurate information must be distributed and communicated quickly.
- Critical and important information be delivered face-to-face as the primary method of communication and secondarily, in print on noticeboards.
- Line managers must take responsibility for identifying when information needs to be communicated and for drafting the communication
- Information must be approved by an appropriate person before distribution.
- The system must support the sharing of information throughout and between all levels of the operations.
- The system must be simple to understand and implement.
- Stakeholders must understand their roles and responsibilities within the system.
To achieve these requirements the following communication model was developed. Clear roles and responsibilities were assigned to each step. See Appendix A: Supporting material to learn more about the system.
The risk the existing processes left in the business were too considerable to leave unattended while a system was designed. As a first phase a single existing template with which people were already familiar was chosen to provide some consistency. Pre-start briefing teams, made up of volunteers, were also established to ensure each employee was receiving a face-to-face briefing before each shift.
Stage two saw the development of a longer-term solution. Key enablers of the system are outlined below.
The system includes two clear communication channels –– an ‘Alert’ and an ‘Advice’.
- An alert is issued when an immediate behavioural change is required.
- An advice is issued if employees need to be made aware of an issue.
- The channels have three categories: safety, procedural and other (to be added at manager’s discretion e.g. environment).
- Templates were set up to facilitate clear, concise and consistent communications. See Figure 2: Alert and advice templates.
- Gatekeeper roles were established to provide a quality check on alerts and advices. There are gatekeepers at the regional, QR National Coal and organisational level.
- Approving manager roles were established to ensure the most senior manager in charge of an area would approve an alert/advice being issued to their area.
- Role cheat sheets were developed to sit on key stakeholders’ desks as a quick guide to performing their role. See Figure 3: Role cheat sheets. Also see Appendix A: Supporting material.
- Email distribution lists were set up that included line managers and key stakeholders for a business region, as well as gatekeepers from other regions. This facilitated information sharing throughout and between all levels of the operations.
- New safety and workplace noticeboards were designed and built. These are structured around our communication channels and helped to separate critical and important information from local information. See Figure 4: Safety and workplace noticeboards.
- Central online database for storing alerts and advices. Guidance documents were established that could be accessed by all line managers in the business.
- Up-to-date team lists were made available to line managers to allow them to ensure that all employees are communicated to. In the case of an alert being issued, employees must sign against their
- Learning management system was amended to allow communication to be recorded. When an alert is issued employees must sign their name to acknowledge receipt and understanding of the message. The record is then entered into the electronic learning management system. This allows managers to determine who has been communicated to and who is outstanding.
- The Communication Team developed a training package for line managers and gatekeepers. The training covers writing in plain English, using the Critical and Important Communication System and good practice in delivering messages face-to-face. This was delivered to every line manager within the business prior to roll out of the system and is being included in the induction program for new managers.
- A numbering system to track alerts and advices if they were issued in one region and then re-issued in another region or business.
A comprehensive system was developed for communicating critical and important information and subsequently implemented in a complex, high risk environment. The system was developed in consultation with stakeholders across the business and with the support of QR National Coal senior management.
An evaluation of the Critical and Important Information Communication System was conducted in June 2010. Stakeholder interviews and a desktop review of issued alerts and advices were undertaken. An assessment of success against the objective is outlined below.
Areas for improvement
- As the system guarantees face-to-face communication managers are using the system to communicate information that is not strictly critical or important. This additional information is congesting the pre-start briefings. The Communication Team is now looking at non-critical information and how that is channelled and filtered in pre-start briefings.
- Up to 30 per cent of alerts and advices need to be more clearly written. The Communication Team will offer ongoing consultation with line managers, gatekeepers and approving managers to help improve the quality of these communications.
- Some stakeholders, e.g. noticeboard administrators, need to be more disciplined in performing their responsibilities. The Communication Team is working with these stakeholders.
In general the system is successful and has had widespread and immediate adoption across the business. This is evidenced by heavy use of the system and the guaranteed face-to-face delivery of communication. Other businesses within QR National and Queensland Rail are now adopting the system.
Stakeholders’ feedback is overwhelmingly positive, with most improvement comments focusing on the need for some people to be more disciplined in the application of the system rather than the system itself.
While addressing the unique communication needs of QR National Coal the system could be applied to any high-risk workplace and represents best practice in the industry (compared to other systems that the Communication Team and other employees of QR National Coal have been exposed to in previous workplaces).