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Hennie du Plooy is Chief Executive Officer of Port Waratah Coal Services (PWCS). As the leader at PWCS, Hennie believes that achievement comes through the teams you lead and are a part of. Throughout Hennie’s career, all of his roles have been in, or related to mining. Hennie has had numerous opportunities and challenges along the way working in copper, gold and uranium in South Africa to gold in Cobar in western NSW, to coal in central Queensland.

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3 Value Bombs

1. To demonstrate authentic safety leadership you’ve got to be true to yourself and work out how to demonstrate that you truly care and how to build relationships so that people have the confidence that you are going to be consistent day in and day out. You need to show that you're not doing it for any other reason than what you say you are, which is because you care about your people going home safely without a work impact into the rest of their lives.

2. It is so important to engage with and empower your workforce to believe that it is possible to work without injury or having incidents of significant risk. Getting everybody to buy into that remains a key challenge. Those beliefs are generated so early on and from so many different influences that it's quite difficult in the workplace to challenge that. Port Waratah try to convey to their employees and engage them in the belief that they can control every potential outcome.

3. Mental health is a key challenge for organisations now and moving forward. Mental health and wellbeing is unlike a purely safety issue, which relates to a hazard that exists only at work, not at home. In the case of mental health, work and home life are inevitably connected. We need to manage the work related aspects of mental health while at the same time dealing with and understanding that people's personal lives are complex and that we all have issues and challenges and uncertainties from time to time. The interplay between our work lives and our personal lives and how that affects and influences our overall perception of mental health and wellbeing is a current and future challenge for executives and boards. 

Show Notes

Getting Started

[00:00:00] Welcome to this issue of leading safety - Keeping safety real. 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 their people do every day at work and even at home through the culture they define and live that permeates their organisations. In this podcast series, organisational leaders share their personal stories to support other leaders to keep people safe at work. In a constantly changing global tech environment work, health and safety is just one of many areas executives and board members have to juggle. How do they fit health, safety and well-being in with running a successful, complex business? How do they keep it real? Our guests will share with us how they live, the value 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 personal and real and we know you learn something along the way that will help you, and you'll make some great connections.

[00:01:09] We're excited to welcome today's guest. Port Waratah Coal Services Chief Executive Officer Hennie du Plooy as the leader at PWCS Hennie believes that achievement comes through the teams you lead and are a part of. Throughout his career, all of his roles have been in or related to mining. Hennie has had numerous opportunities and challenges along the way, working in copper, gold and uranium in South Africa to gold in Cobar in western New South Wales, to coal in central Queensland and now at PWCS. A huge welcome to you Hennie, and thank you for agreeing to be a guest on the Leading Safety Keeping Safety Real podcast.

[00:01:49] Thanks Kerry.

[00:01:50] I'd like to start our chat with a brief summary of your own journey and what you see as the unique health, safety and wellbeing challenges in your industry.

[00:01:59] Sure. So to me and my career, there's really been two parts. The first in South Africa and the second in Australia. And I think not unexpectedly, there are clearly some differences, but there's also particularly in the work health and safety space. A lot of commonality. My first memory of work safety at work is going underground in gold mining South Africa to about three and half kilometres and walking for about two hours to get to the stopes where it was around 600 people working. And that's a memory that stays with me until today, because I clearly remember the feeling of awe and admiration for those who work there. It was a challenging environment at the time in the early 90s, and it was what we would certainly describe as an unsafe work environment, really challenging, deep underground, very hot, narrow gold veins being chased and a lot of people doing a lot of manual work with airlegs and so on. From there, I moved to a mine called Palabora, which is a large open cut copper and by-products mine, where my key roles were in the industrial minerals side in uranium.

[00:03:15] And an early challenge was to introduce what today's accepted as radiation controls into what at that point had been an uncontrolled plant with significant radiation exposures. And the key challenge to me was trying to explain this invisible, intangible hazard to a workforce who had the equivalent of around a year six education against a background of significant superstition and African beliefs. A really challenging lesson early on in what can be achieved through personal engagement, because the only way to bring that team along was to spend a lot of time with them personally and guide them through this significant change which we expected them to buy into. And then in Australia, both in Cobar and at the Athol, I remember the first few months to me was a significant lesson in the very different level of expectation of freedom to exercise discretion by the teams here, which wasn't the case and hadn't been the case in South Africa. And somewhat contradictory to that. And this remains to me one of the biggest challenges in our industry and in work, health and safety is that there was still, despite all of that, a significant lack of belief or acceptance that you can work without injury or incident. There remains and even today amongst parts of our workforce, a view that there are just some things that we can't control. There is always something that is going to come from the blind side and catch us unaware. So to me, that remains the biggest challenge, I firmly believe that we can work with without injury or injuring people or having incidents of significant risk but getting everybody to buy into that remains the key challenges, and to me, that's a big hurdle to ultimately working fully without injury or incident is that people have to believe that, that is possible.

[00:05:10] Yeah, and those beliefs are generated so early on and from so many different influences that it's quite difficult in the workplace to challenge that.

[00:05:18] Yeah, very much so.

[00:05:18] And you do struggle with the view they have in their own lives too, how much they can control and how much they can't much like their life outside of work sometimes emphasises to them that there are external agencies and influences that have a significant impact on their lives. And then at work we try to convey to them and engage them in the belief that they can control every potential outcome.

[00:05:38] Yeah. So how did you come to understand what excellent safety leadership looked like along the way of that journey? Did you have a particular role model? Did they do something to make an impression on you? How did you know what good looked like?

[00:05:51] Well, looking back at it, I came into some leadership roles quite early on and when I look back at the day, I have to consider that if you are honest, you have to think that you were frankly unprepared for some of it. But the one thing I do remember in terms of a role model is my first general manager at this Palabora mine was a guy called George Thassal. And I still today marvel at how many people's names he knew this is a mine of about two and a half thousand people and he could walk up to virtually anybody and greet them by their name and ask them about their family. And to me, that demonstration of personal care and personal engagement is still one of the key marks of good and excellent safety leadership. Unless you can demonstrate that you really care, people aren't going to believe in buy into your drive to encourage them to work without injury or incident.

[00:06:42] Yeah, that's such an important point. It's about the core value I guess about caring for individuals, which becomes more challenging in larger organisations.

[00:06:51] That's right, definitely and the higher up you go, the more distracted you become by various parts of your role and engaging directly with people in the front line who are often most exposed to the hazards that do exist in our workplaces becomes a significant challenge and takes concerted effort. It takes effort in scheduling and commitment to make sure that you do spend time with people where they work.

[00:07:16] Yes, you learn so much, not just about safety. I'm interested in Port Waratah Coal Services five drivers of success, which include one dedicated to health and safety. And this seems to require the business performance to reflect its value of caring, as you've just talked about. Can you tell me about this driver and how you are seeking to fulfill this?

[00:07:40] Certainly, to us it was trying to bridge the gap between what we say we believe and what we can demonstrate in terms of our outcomes. So the focus is on accepting the challenge of making our results reflect our values, because to be honest, expressing value of caring for people or putting safety first or however you want to phrase it is relatively easy. And it's often where we fall down because it's often where we get challenged by our employees and our team members as they are very perceptive and they can see when our behaviors or our expectations in terms of production or anything else contradict those expressions of value. And we've had some challenges in the sense that we've had a very rigorous and robust approach to safety at Port Waratah for a long time.

[00:08:28] But at various times we have, like most organisations I suppose have had times when we've suffered more injuries and times when we've suffered fewer. And the way we phrased this driver was all about accepting that challenge, of consistently doing the things to get our results to reflect that value of caring, which means that it's more than just expressing the value is more than just saying we expect to be able to work without injury or incident. It is actually making sure and holding us to account to do the things that also have direct consequence of our resolve showing so that our results if we are consistent and for us to be successful, we expect our results that low injury rate and low consequence incident to reflect that commitment to caring for people.

[00:09:12] Have you got an example or maybe or a story where that has sort of come to the fore when you had to deal with that?

[00:09:18] Yes, certainly. So a large part of what we have been focusing on is the concept of shared accountability or shared responsibility. One of and I remember when I started here when some of the early discussions we had with our employees around safety were all about their expectation of what the leadership was going to do next. How, the leadership was going to make sure that we can work safely. And I've found that really challenging because in some of the my other work experiences, particularly at peak gold, I have to say in Cobar, there was a lot of acceptance that people, particularly underground at the time, had a significant influence and had a significant personal accountability to not only themselves but to their team members. So what we would have been trying to do, at Port Waratah, was to grow a commitment to that concept of shared accountability and shared responsibility so that there's no pointing finger or waiting for somebody else to pick something or notice something. What we are trying to grow is a commitment to always amongst each and every one of us. From me to the operator in the trade there on a weekend or overnight on a 24/7 shift, to always look for a better way to always make sure that he or she is not waiting for somebody else to come and make sure that they can work safely. But to accept to a large extent a responsibility to themselves and their families to do whatever they can to ensure that they can do their work.

[00:10:39] That takes a real shift, doesn't it, a real building of trust that they're going to be supported when they do take those actions?

[00:10:44] Absolutely. Absolutely. You have to, again, behave consistently so that if somebody makes a decision or somebody erases something, you can demonstrate that it is heard and if not acted on. There is an understanding or a communication about what the rationale is and how the hazard or the perceived hazard or the perceived risk is being addressed in as far as they need support to address it.

Greatest Challenges & Lessons

[00:11:08] Thank you for that. So for yourself, what's been your biggest personal challenge in relation to health, safety and wellbeing and how did you go about addressing it?

[00:11:16] To me, one of the biggest challenges, as I said before, is just bridging that gap between my belief that we can work, whether it's underground in a gold operation or in an open pit or in an industrial environment like we are, at Port Waratah that we can work without incident or injury. The gap between that and quite often the very natural, very basic instinct amongst most people to consider that there are some things that are just outside of their control that could happen unexpectedly that they can't necessarily influence. And that remains a challenge to this day. I think we've made a lot of progress. And I think there are more and more people, particularly when you have that conversation about shared accountability and personal responsibility. And also the reason talking about the reasons we want to work safe, things people have to go home safely to and so on, that brings home that conversation. And the only way that I've been able to identify to approach bridging that gap is by working with leaders and leadership to build personal relationships based on trust, as you said before, and commitment that everybody will do their part because otherwise you just get nowhere and people are very perceptive they see the gaps between the words and your actions very quickly.

[00:12:35] Yes. What are you hearing in the C-suite and the boardroom environments about the biggest health, safety and wellbeing issues at the moment and emerging?

[00:12:43] The one issue I hear probably the most about is that of mental health and wellbeing it's such a complex issue because we know there are some tangible and potentially easier influences to manage. I think we understand better and better for example, that people who work rotating shifts are more likely to struggle with mental health and wellbeing. People who work fly in, fly out rosters. It's now been shown to a significant propensity to struggle more with mental health and wellbeing. I think one of the key challenges with mental health is just the interplay between our private life and our work life, our family lives and our personal lives and our work life.

[00:13:24] And quite often, unlike a purely safety issue, which relates to a hazard that exists only at work, not at home. In the case of mental health, I think they're inevitably connected. So managing the work related aspects of mental health while at the same time dealing with the fact that people's personal lives are complex and that we all have, even those of us who are happiest, if that's the right word, have issues and challenges and uncertainties from time to time. So the interplay between our work lives and our personal lives and how that affects and influences our overall perception of mental health and wellbeing, I think is a key challenge for us. One of the key characteristics of our workplaces these days is that they're changing more rapidly, faster and faster. And from a mental well-being perspective, dealing with change is one of the most human struggles. So people are dealing with changing in the external world, their dealing with changing in work life. We introduce more advanced technology at work. People perceive that quite often as a threat. And they while at the same time they're dealing with the changes in the external world and in their personal lives. And the combination of those impact, the stress it creates. I think that we have to acknowledge that the one influences the other, how we manage that in workplaces of the future and at the moment is one of the most significant challenges for us.

[00:14:46] Yeah planning those changes and implementing them with care, it just becomes a whole other facet not just the technical component.

[00:14:53] Yeah, that's right.

[00:14:54] So with your experience, having worked with radioactivity and as you said an invisible hazard it's a bit like fatigue, you can't see that you can't see a person's mind. It's a similar sort of thing. Rather than saying here is a machine that's not guarded. That's pretty clear to everyone. You can see that.

[00:15:11] Yeah, I suppose there are parallels there because it is similar in the sense that the impact of something you do today, won't necessarily be seen for some time. The actual consequences of a certain exposure in the case of radiation is not necessarily always directly quantifiable.

[00:15:28] Yep different for different people and predictable.

[00:15:31] Different in terms of how long and the intensity and all those issues. And in that sense, the challenges around well-being are similar because of the actions we take today the consequences aren't necessarily immediately visible in people. It builds up over periods of time and it has a very significant impact on people. I've seen firsthand the experiences we had, an experience we had in Cobar with fortunately not a fatality, but a near fatality incident underground. The impact that had on the mental wellbeing of the whole workforce. One of our supervisors at Blair Athol many years ago now, committed suicide at home, an operations supervisor and apart from the direct family impact, the impact of that event on the workforce more generally in terms of their experience of that sort of thing has consequences which you sometimes end up dealing with months later. And so very challenging.

[00:16:25] Yeah, there's been some commentary recently about from the employees in the mining industry in Queensland seeking better support in terms of the recent fatalities, spate of fatalities this year. And for the people who are trying to cope with that being such a long time since they’ve experienced that people are out of practice, if you like, which is a good thing in a sense, but they just don't know how to provide that immediate support. It's really important, I guess. On that note, how do you personally keep safety real on your day to day basis?

[00:16:53] Well, I think its two aspects. One is that connection between why we work or why we endeavour to work safely and our work exposure.

[00:17:01] So the rationale for it all is something we continually talk about at Port Waratah to remind people that it's not about a number and it's not about some reduction in frequency rate or whatever. Those are not the reasons we work safely. The reason we work safely is because we care about sending people home to their families and the rest of their lives.

[00:17:21] Yes you have quite a few stories in your newsletter about those sorts of things.

[00:17:25] Absolutely, Yes. And that's why we support employees in making contributions to their community, and things they value. So we have people who've had experiences with cancer, for example, in their personal lives. And we support whether it's a bike ride or fundraising of some sort. We support individuals in participating in that and making a personal contribution. And it's all based around making that link between the reason we do things as I said before, is not numbers or a bonus or anything. It's because we care about people's work lives not having a negative impact on the rest of their lives. Yeah. And the way I make it really is to talk about that transparently and openly and to show that you do the same thing as a leader. So you share with people directly and openly what you value outside of work and the things you want to be able to do outside of work and where possible you do it with them. So they see you at the beach or on the golf course or whatever, so that we can continually talk about why we aim to work safely and keep that in front of people's minds.

[00:18:27] And what's the best feedback you've ever had in relation to your own visible leadership?

[00:18:32] I think the best feedback I've ever had was people saying that they can see you truly care, that you back up your words with actions. So, for example, when we had a near fatality in Cobar and the workforce was really struggling, I had the confidence to call my boss in London and I said, I need to stop this mine for a day because I need to work through this with the workforce. As a result of that, those sorts of things, people recognise that you are consistent. You, truly care, you're not behind the scenes focusing on a number or a bonus or whatever the case may be. You're doing what you're doing for the right reasons. And that's very reassuring feedback to receive. That people do see that that, that you truly care. It's not just because you're the boss or whatever.

[00:19:20] And that does take time to build up. It's time for people to really trust that when you join an organisation as the leader, because they have got their recent experience and the historical experience and that's now what's this person going to be like?

[00:19:32] And it's often challenging because in many of these operations, particularly when you're in more remote areas in the mining industry, it is par for the course that the leadership changes quite regularly. Two and a half or three years, people are in different roles and some of that's justified. But some of it brings with it a very significant challenge because every leader comes in and has a slightly different idea. And one of the ways people manage that is to only partly commit to the current leader they manage down a middle path where they don't have to change too much to accommodate whatever the current expectation is.

[00:20:06] Yes, because I know that they think that person won't be there for very long so they go, well, we'll just ride it out.

[00:20:12] Which is why I've enjoyed my current role, because I have been here a bit longer than would have been normally expected previously. And having had the opportunity to build those relationships and build that confidence in the teams and in our employees, that you're not just making decisions for the short term, but that you are fully committed to living with the consequences.

[00:20:34] Yes.

[00:20:35] Where you take the business is a key accountability and something that is very important for teams to have confidence in you as a leader.

Pearls of Wisdom

[00:20:43] So thank you so much for sharing your story. Finally, I'd like to extract a couple of pearls of wisdom to finish. Firstly, would there be anything you would do differently in the area of health, safety and wellbeing if you had your time again?

[00:20:56] I was thinking about this quite carefully and I think one of the things I would want to be able to do better earlier is around developing skills to challenge more productively. Much of my career has been contradictory in a way because it's typically been part of large mining houses, but quite often, particularly the last few roles in Australia, both in Cobar and Clermont and now here you have a significant level of autonomy because the mother ship is a long way away and for various reasons, the nature of the business is such that you have a significant level of autonomy. What I've said and what I've found is  that gives you opportunity and perspective to identify duties and weaknesses, duties for improvement in the systems and processes that our large organisations have in place around health and safety. You struggle to get heard sometimes when you try to manage to such a large or influence into such a large organisation.

[00:21:53] Because if you're in I mean, at that time in a coal mine in central Queensland, you are one of 30 or 40 operations worldwide for a group such as some such as Rio Tinto, who is who was the owner and to influence back into such a large organisation is a skill that I would want to be much better at much earlier.

 [00:22:12] It's becoming more of an organisations get larger as well.

[00:22:16] Definitely and tending to focus more on or be focused more on matrix type structures where influencing that influencing skill is more important every day.

[00:22:29] And secondly, what advice would you give to executives of the future as to how best to demonstrate visible leadership in health, safety and wellbeing to the people who work for them?

[00:22:39] I just think you've got to be true to yourself and work out how to demonstrate that you truly care, how to build relationships, that people have confidence day in and day out that you are going to be consistent. You're not doing it for any other reason than what you say you are, which is because you care about people going home safely without a work impact into the rest of their lives.

[00:23:01] And that's even despite all the challenges of production and in your case shipping and other external factors and there are a lot of pressures there.

[00:23:07] There are and ultimately you rely on people in our case, in a 24/7 sort of operation and making the right decisions at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, not necessarily with a supervisor or a leader there. You've got to equip them to do it and they have to have the confidence that their decision will be supported and respected in the rest of the business and on a Monday morning when the rest of us get back there. So that truthfulness, transparency and commitment to honesty with your teams, to me is the key skill in terms of leading people, but leading people to work safely.

[00:23:47] Okay, great. And just one small piece. I think I might sort of have an idea what you might say. But if you had to describe what safety means to you in one word or one phrase, what would that be?

[00:23:59] Work safety means to me that people don't have to deal with the impacts of their work in their personal lives, whether that's through an injury or a wellbeing impact. My objective with people who work in our business is that on balance, it should be a positive experience and it can't be a positive experience if they have to deal with the impact of an injury. It needs to leave them better off.

[00:24:21] All right. We'll leave that there. I feel better off already. Thank you so much for joining us and we really appreciate those insights.

[00:24:29] You're very welcome. I enjoyed it.

[00:24:31] Thank you.

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