safety-works-logoCreated with Sketch.


Nick Roberts is the CEO and Executive Director of Forestry Corporation of New South Wales. Nick is a highly experienced business leader with over 20 years spent in senior management in the forestry industry. Nick's values based approach to management, with a particular emphasis on health and safety, has served him well during his long career in the forestry industry.

Subscribe and listen to Leading Safety on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

3 Value Bombs

1. Safety, like everything changes and bench-marking really helps you to see what others are doing well and where they could improve, this helps you to stay contemporary. In some senses safety is really simple, at another level it can be quite complicated because we're talking about human behaviour. You can learn an enormous amount from going to visit other companies, talking to other CEOs about how they approach safety. Never just go on your own take operating managers with you say three or four to get the key lessons.

2. Using a big stick and demanding that people do things a certain way does not always work well. Particularly in the forestry environment where you may interact with somebody for half an hour and they may not see anyone from leadership for another three or four weeks. So you need to get them to buy into what it is you're saying and to develop a sense of self responsibility in terms of what it is you're talking about with regard to safety, getting them to understand what it is that you're talking about and why.

3. The reality is that safety can be relentless. You constantly have new people coming into your business who you need to understand your culture and how you manage things and that requires a lot of commitment to time with people, new leaders, people down in the business getting that felt leadership sense out there, spending time yourself, understanding the problems and working on the problems, trying to find solutions. Engage with the people, engage with the problem, and try to really understand and provide leadership as to how you're going to solve the problems and get to a better place.

Show Notes

Getting Started

[00:00:01] Welcome to this issue of Leading Safety - keeping safety real.

[00:00:06] Our goal is to stretch a safety net of connections across the world through exchange of ideas between organisational leaders. These are the people who influence what thousands of people do every day at work and even at home through the culture they define and believe that permeates through their organisations. In this podcast series, organisational leaders share their personal stories about leading and engaging people in health, safety and wellbeing. We hope that as a business leader, the podcast format will make it easy to listen and pick up some pearls of wisdom. No matter where you are in the car, in a plane, between meetings or with your leadership team, in a constantly changing global tech environment, work, health and safety is one of the many areas executives and board members have to juggle. How do they fit? Health, safety and wellbeing in with running a successful, complex business. How do they keep it real? Our guests will share with us how they live, the values they place in the people who work for them every single day, the challenges they've faced and the super wins they've had that have provided the motivation to keep them in there. It's a personal and real conversation and we know you'll learn something along the way that will help you, and hopefully you'll make some great connections as well. So let's chat.

[00:01:35] Nick, thank you for having us here today in your office, which I love. I love sitting and looking out at the trees, a beautiful place in the world that you manage to spend your working days. Nick is the CEO and Executive Director of Forestry Corporation of New South Wales. Nick is a highly experienced business leader with over 20 years experience in senior management in the forestry industry. Nick's values based approach to management, with a particular emphasis on health and safety, has served him well during his long career in the forestry industry. Huge. Welcome to you Nick and thank you for agreeing to be a guest on our podcast.

[00:02:09] Thanks Liz, I'm very pleased to be able to help in any way that I can. Although a little nervous after that buildup.

[00:02:18] I know you'll manage it no problems at all. I'd like to start our chat with a brief summary of your journey and what you see as the unique health, safety and wellbeing challenges in your industry.

[00:02:29] Okay. Well, just in terms of my career and a very high level snapshot, when I graduated with a Masters in Forestry, I joined the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company in New Zealand and my first role was in a research lab doing some operational research and also process engineering work. I've got to say for me at that time and even for the business at that time, safety was not obviously a major focus area. There was lots of talk about industrial relations and financial performance of the business, but very little about safety, which is more the norm now in terms of one of the priorities we will focus on. I then moved into pulp and paper sales, spent a lot of time on the road, which again didn't involve much consideration on safety. And then kind of midway through my career, I joined  a joint venture forest management company in the South Island of New Zealand. And it was at that time that safety became very real to me. At that time, there were a lot of people working in the bush with chainsaws, lots of manual falling operations, breaking out task where you have people down the hill attaching logs to cables to pull them up the hill.

[00:03:41] Again, a very, very risky environment to be working in. And so it struck me that safety suddenly became a very big part of my responsibility. And that only increased in that the parent company of this business appointed a new CEO who came out of BP and so brought all of the thinking around safety from the petrochemicals industry and just lifted the bar on all of us in terms of the expectations of how we would behave. And then finally, I worked for a North American Forest Products company who bought the business I was working in and they were a Dupont shop. And so they were one of the early movers on the Dupont thinking around health and safety. And so all of the theory around felt leadership, all accidents are preventable. That became part of the mantra that we used to use. So that was my my journey in terms of how I've become more acutely aware of of safety, more acutely aware of my role in driving safety performance, my accountability for safety performance. So when I left Weyerhaeuser and came to Australia, I've maintained that interest and that focus on safety in the businesses that I've been involved in.

[00:04:46] In terms of the second part of your question, what are the unique challenges? Forestry is an interesting business where we're very dispersed. We are all over New South Wales. Inland to the coast and all the way up through to the Queensland border. And so we have people work in remote locations, we have a history of being very blokey and we say things like 'these things will happen' and people do things and we say 'but he's a good bloke or she's a really good person'. Rather than thinking about some of the underlying behaviours which really need to be corrected rather than being a little more forgiving consequent of the area that we work over. We're constantly working in upset conditions. We do have a factory, but our factory is over a huge physical area and the risks are constantly changing. So our exposure to risk on any day can range from slips, trips and falls to the prospect of something coming out of a tree or branch breaking off to road accidents. A whole range of different risks we're constantly confronted with. So those I think would be some of the unique challenges in the forest industry right now.

[00:05:50] And really interesting to hear. And over that period of time, which I would reflect similarly on the change from what was very much industrial thinking through to what we see today. It's just really interesting. And I also was quite interested in your insights into looking at how other industries do things and the impact that has. So how did you come to understand what excellent safety leadership looks like? Did you have a role model? What did they do that made an impression on you?

[00:06:29] I have been impressed by a lot of people's focus on safety that I've worked with. But there's this one gentleman who stands out. He was a North American ex Marine, a gentleman called John Mantz. And John was very good in our industry in that he was able to operate at all levels in the organisation so he could operate at a board level and he could also operate right down on the ground and in the bush. And he could relate to people who are working sometimes in very, very challenging conditions. He really showed to me this this concept of loss, causation and how you work through the loss causation model to ultimately leadership being involved and responsible for pretty much anything that goes wrong with regard to safety.

[00:07:12] And I've got to say, that was very confronting for me when I first became aware of that concept through John. So he certainly had a very big impact on me in terms of how I personally felt about safety and the safety of people who work in businesses I'm responsible for. He also had a neat concept, an operational risk management concept, and I really like the idea because  it's a risk management approach, but you operationalise it. So it's a bit like a take five with a slightly different format associated with it. So you can empower people in the bush to think about the risks they might be about to confront when they go into the bush. So then in terms of how I've understood what safety leadership looks like, the leaders of two businesses in particular.

[00:08:06] They obviously taught me a lot about what safety leadership looked and felt like and what it should look and feel like and what leaders were doing. You were able to observe that in the warehouse. I can tell you, it was career limiting if you weren't able to manage safety, you would not progress in that business. And I saw people who were actually demoted, and actually left the business because they couldn't manage safety. They took that seriously.

[00:08:29] So I think that was one way. The other thing that I've done a lot of and I've been very, very fortunate to do this during my career, I've visited at least 20 different organisations to benchmark safety. We've just revisited our own business safety strategy. And as a part of that, we visited nine or ten companies alone across Australia and New Zealand. And whilst in some senses safety is really simple, at another level it can be quite complicated because we're talking about human behaviour.

[00:08:57] And I've learnt an enormous amount from going to visit other companies, talking to CEOs about how they approach safety. And the other neat thing about that in my mind is and what I would really encourage your listeners to do as much benchmarking as they can. You learn yourself, but never just go on your own. Take. Operating managers with you three or four, you never want to overdo it. Three or four and you will get the learnings. And then the other really neat thing is that when you get in the car after you visit, you share the ideas and you bounce off each other what you've seen and what you think is good and what isn't good. I've found that to be to be really helpful and really understanding what good safety it looks like. The other thing I would say is you need to keep doing it to keep contemporary. So safety, like everything changes.

[00:09:40] And I have been guilty over the last number of years of letting my sense of what's contemporary in safety slip. I think we've now corrected that in this business. But you do need to make sure you constantly learn and look to see what people are doing and evolving along the way.

[00:09:56] Yeah, exactly. Interesting. So what's the best feedback you've had in relation to your own visible leadership?

[00:10:02] I think it was really with Weyerhaeuser and the importance of felt leadership and that sense of getting out. I mean, I think all senior leaders get out and about in their businesses. They go and see what's going on. But you tend to go and have a look how a machines operating or how harvesting operation is going and you might inject safety into the conversation. And one of the things I do like about the felt leadership concept is you go and you just talk about safety. And I think there are good and bad ways you can do that, I have to say. But I do think that the importance of leadership on the ground really showing concern, showing empathy for the work that people who are working for you are doing. And I'm trying to understand what they're going through, I think that is really, really important. So my time at Weyerhaeuser that was very educational in that regard. It was something that organisation took very seriously. And we used to monitor ourselves on how we went with it. And I think that would probably be in terms of feedback it wasn't one on one feedback, but it was an expectation of the organisation. So in that sense, it was feedback. And I learnt a lot through that process. And definitely I think it improves your ability to manage.

Greatest Challenges & Lessons

[00:11:12] So taking on the feedback and actually using it to continue to grow with it. Yeah, exactly. So you've already mentioned that in a forest it is a very challenging environment and that there's so many factors at play. What has been your biggest challenge in relation to health, safety and wellbeing within your industry? And how have you gone about addressing that?

[00:11:34] An interesting question. I think there's two things. And this is my own personal experiences as it's self-evident, but as thinking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs to go back to a particular philosophy. And the second level is about safety. It's about personal safety. So personal safety is something which is very hardwired into us biologically. We want to look after ourselves. And we have a sense that we can do this. I mean, we've got to when we get a career, we've managed to get through our teen years and all the risks attendant with that. And we get a job and and we think we know exactly how to  look after ourselves. And then you go to an organisation and you have managers who are actually telling you how to look after yourself. And that can grate on some people and in some  cultures. So  that whole thing around behavior and how do you change behavior, given you've got this hardwired sense of I can look after myself, I don't need to wear PPE. You know, I've been doing this job for years and never needed it. That sense is really quite challenging to break through, particularly in traditional industries like ours. The second is around risk management.

[00:12:40] Risk management is the foundation of all safety management systems. But I think in safety we get confused because we get caught. Expressions like all accidents are preventable. Zero harm, target zero. All these kind of things. And that drives you to a sort of illogical process of looking at risk and working through risk.

[00:13:03] If you say all accidents are preventable, then you're going to work really hard on every single accident to make sure that it doesn't happen again. Or certainly that's the danger. And I have certainly seen it and I've experienced and I've done it that that's the mantra that you follow. So that's the route that you go down. We had to stop every single accident like the broken windows example in New York. I think in terms of, again, how I thought about that in my career and some of this is even quite recent. I think the thinking  around risk needs to be risk based. And what are the consequences of the risk? I met a guy who runs Kiwi rail in New Zealand. He was talking about a slips, trips and falls and saying that's one risk in his business. The other risk is that rail wagons are not smart, you know, in a new I.T. sense. And so  where should he be focusing his attention a railwagon that runs loose could potentially cause a fatality or very serious injuries or a slip in a warehouse. Both interesting. Concerning. But where should he, as CEO, focus his time and that sense of critical risk management and how senior leadership should really focus on that, I think that's one learning and that's one way of going about addressing it.

[00:14:16] I think going back to the behaviours, I think particularly in the Australian context, using a big stick and demanding that people do things does not always work well. And particularly in our environment where you may interact with somebody for half an hour or an hour and they may not see anyone from leadership for another three or four weeks. They're working in the bush. So you need to get them to buy into what it is you're saying and to develop a sense of self responsibility in terms of what it is you're talking about with regard to safety, getting them to understand what it is that you're going on about. So we've had some quite interesting experiences around that to talk about a little bit later. But yeah, I think those would be two challenges. And two ways that we've sort of thought about it in our organisation and I thought about how we  might address individuals as well.

[00:15:06] You know, that's a really interesting idea that you just talked about, about how do you actually go about engaging people. You've talked about this traditional male dominated industry. I'm okay. It'll be okay. Stuff happens. So and balancing that with the challenge that you want to protect people and we want to support people to be as well and as healthy as they can and go home safely. So what are some of the strategies you have experienced or tried that you have found to be successful in engaging people?

[00:15:40] So I guess it's engaging, but also minimising risks and maybe a little bit of both. But I've got to say, I've become a great fan of technology in risk minimisation. So technology in vehicles particularly is one of our biggest risks. How can we get technology in vehicles which makes them safer? And of course, all vehicles and vehicle manufacturers are installing better and better gear to make vehicles safer and safer. And we've been riding on the back of that. But it really does make a huge difference in my mind. No, nothing better than spending time with people. And, you know, going out, as I said, for half an hour or an hour is one thing. But you need to be able to cut through in that time. And that can be quite challenging. So you've got to be able to very quickly get people at a very personal level. So what is it that's driving them and say that can be very particular in our industry. So there's no substitute for spending time. So I've spent time sitting in log trucks with log truck drivers for two, three hours, four hours at a time. And it's all very starchy during the first half an hour, as you would expect. Yes. And I'm sure the log truck driver thinks I'm very starchy. But after, you know, you've had a bit of a chat, you talk about the footy or whatever it is, then you can start really developing a relationship and say now you've got two mobile phones in the cabin. I noticed that one is Bluetooth. What about the other mobile phone? Has it got a Bluetooth on it. No, it doesn't. So what do you do with that one? Well, you know, and you know exactly what goes on with the second mobile phone. So you learn some things that are really insightful in terms of, well, you can get phones that have two channels of Bluetooth and you have speaker phones and then a cab that will have two channels of Bluetooth. So you can actually, with technology, get around that problem. Difficult to expect people to run all day in a truck and not use their mobile phones at all. Spending time, genuine time with people really helps. I do like the idea of positive reinforcement. We do tend as managers to look at what's wrong and how we can fix it. Now I think that can become a bit hackneyed over time. So I do like the idea of going out and talking value. How did you go last week? No, not too bad. Well, why was that? What actually contributed to last week going right? Was it the weather? Was it the fact that Bill, who's usually pretty disruptive, was away sick? You know, whatever it might be. But you do, you can pick up a lot of information by turning around that question. The other thing I think is I've been guilty of talking about rates in organisations I've worked for have had target rates. Target is less than 1 recordable injury rates. And you talk about that all the time and people read and understand what you're talking about.

[00:18:14] I mean, you can explain the calculation till your blue in the face. They don't understand it. So turning it into an incident that, of course, makes it more real in terms of it's a person, somebody you can relate to. Overall engagement. So how do you how do you engage people while you get them involved in engagement activities? And one of those, as with our recent safety strategy, we have really devolved work on those projects down to the business. So we're only five hundred and seventy five people. We've had work streams that probably over 100 individuals have been involved in thinking about. And that's been really exciting to watch because you have debriefs from these teams and they say in a very depreciating way. We're not the experts in this, but this is what we found. And what you find is that through the internet and all the information which is so readily available, they actually are now experts, certainly experts in our organisation. And that's been really exciting to work on. The final one is, is the power of competition. People don't like this. In some senses. So if the more you can allow it to happen organically in the business, the better. But nobody wants to be on a schedule which is going high or low in terms of safety incident rate.

[00:19:31] Competition is a great drive. You want to be down the bottom with the highest number of incidents in your part of the business. It really drives people to improve. They don't like it because nobody wants to be at the bottom and somebody will be. But it is a great motivator. It is also good, though, organically. So we've recently installed a  device in all of our vehicles. It's a device called Logbook Me and we debated how we were going to use the data that feeds out of that  device. You can be very top down and heavy handed and disciplinary, so where somebody has a very low safety score, there's a conglomerate's safety score that's generated every week and you can go out and have the tough conversation with people. All you can do as we did we made the data available to every driver so they could have look at their own data. And of course, then people started comparing their information. And before we knew it, people were having competitions in local areas and they're having a bit of fun with it. So what was your safety score last week? Seventy five. I got eight. And you? How did you do that? So they then start talking about their driver behavior. And that's been really neat to see and what was seen at the start as being a bit big brother. Now, technology is now being embraced and everybody really, really talks about it.

[00:20:47] There's clearly a theme of relationship trust. And really communicating with people through all of those examples you gave, you know, crucial to this is that connection with people and valuing people. You absolutely.

[00:21:00] What about, the, C-suite and in the boardroom? What are you hearing and seeing and believing that, that group is seeing as the biggest health, safety and wellbeing issues at the moment and into the near future?

[00:21:13] My experience is limited to boards that I have been exposed to, which is not a great number. I think one of the things that that is difficult in management can keep developing and can go and benchmark and become current in terms of what's going on in industry. Some do this very well but some directors don't do it well. So a question of how do you how do you learn together? And if the board is sitting at a governance level, how do you get them to engage in some of the work that you're doing? So I think that's a challenge. So I do know that there's certainly a big focus on compliance.

[00:21:48] Obviously, that's their role is around governance and it can be quite narrowly focused on some key performance indicators and that would be injury rates. So there is a sense of lagging indicators. The scorecard of where we're going. So I think that can be problematic when safety is a lot more complex than that. And there are many more things that we should be doing to improve health and safety. Needless to say, we'd expect the lagging indicators to move over time, but it's only one measure of a number of initiatives. And I think that's certainly a couple of issues. The other is boards are certainly keeping up with things like mental health and stress as being looming issues in businesses and fatigue. Those are all things which we're kind of struggling with as organisations and we're all learning at the same time as to how we go about managing this stuff better than we have in the past. But those would be a few things that I see that they're really focused on.

[00:22:38] In general, those things that we know are really looming. Generally for organisations. So how do you personally keep safety real?

[00:22:46] We talked a bit about the benchmarking, so looking to see what other people are doing. So trying to understand watching another leader, what are they doing? How could I do that or what's good that I've seen that I might take away? What do I not quite like? I'm not going to pick up on. The other thing that I think is really important is trying to put your head and feet in the shoes of the people who are doing the work for you. So it's easy to tell people that you have expectations that they behave in a particular way in the forest. And I guess this comes back a little bit to this idea of all accidents are preventable. So I can give you an example that we we work in a bush environment. And when you walk into a block, you can't always see where you're going to put your feet. There might be an old log, there might be a stone, there might be a vine. So to go in and talk to somebody about all accidents being preventable and then getting back in your car and heading back to Sydney or wherever you've come from. When the individual then has to turn around and walk into that into that environment. And I'm expecting him not to he or she not to fall over, it is an unreal expectation. So I think we really need to understand what it is that people are doing. And I haven't done the job. I spent hours in the bush with people doing the same task as they do. And I know it's really tough and at the moment we don't have a way around it. But coming back to technology, there are ways we can think about it using drones instead of actually walking into the bush, can we use a remote device. So but I think that sense of really understanding what it is we're asking our employees to do and getting yourself in their minds, I think is a really important thing.

[00:24:19] Thank you, Nick, for sharing your story. Fascinating. And I think a lot of people would not have had that experience of working in such a diverse environment so it's a really great insight for us.

Pearls of Wisdom

[00:24:33] I'd like to extract a couple of pearls of wisdom to finish up. If you had your time again, what would you do differently?

[00:24:41] I think probably be more demanding of the more senior leaders in a business it's very easy to be spun a yarn that, you know, actually. No, look, it's actually this and this is a little bit unusual what's happened. Generally speaking, this is what happens. We don't need to overreact to this. We can probably we can probably get by. And again, coming back to technology, you know, we have retrospectively installed some gear on all of our log trucks, which makes them a whole lot safer than they used to be. And we were really pleased we've done it, but we could have probably started six months earlier. Yes. And so that sense of being demanding and pushy, particularly with regard to safety, I think would be the one thing that I'd say. I mean, if you spend a little more in terms of making things safer, particularly when you're talking critical risks, does it really matter if it doesn't make a difference, but it might well have made a difference.

[00:25:33] And secondly, what advice would you give to executives of the future as how to best demonstrate visible leadership, particularly around the health, safety and wellbeing of the people who work for them.

[00:25:46] So, look, I mean, I think I'd use the term relentless, which makes it sound very negative. It's not really meant to be, but it is the reality. Safety is relentless because you constantly have new people coming into your business who you need to understand your culture and how you manage things.

[00:26:03] And that requires a lot of commitment to time with people, new leaders, people down in the business getting that felt leadership sense out there, spending time yourself, understanding the problems and working on the problems, trying to find solutions. I actually spent quite a bit of my time actually doing that stuff, trying to think through how we could do things better than we are. So engaging with the people, engaging with the problem, really understanding and then providing leadership as to how you're going to solve those problems and get to a better place.

[00:26:32] Excellent. That's fantastic. Thank you. So as we finalise our conversation, we sit here with the sun streaming and looking in the trees, which is absolutely beautiful. Is there one word or one phrase that you would use to sum up what safety, health and well-being means to you?

[00:26:48] I can't really think of anything other than being demanding of yourself and demanding of the people who work for you. You know, you can't just let this thing happen on its own. You've got to lead it.

[00:27:01] Fantastic, really appreciate it. Great insights for people.

[00:27:03] I hope so. Thanks.

[00:27:08] Thank you for listening to the leading safety podcast. This episode is brought to you by SafetyWorks Group. Leaders in Workplace Health, Safety and Wellbeing Solutions. Don't forget to rate, review and subscribe, once you subscribe you'll receive a reminder each time we release a new episode. You can find our podcasts and lots of health and safety resources on the SafetyWorks website at


Don't forget to rate, review and subscribe!