Santanol team member inspecting the Sandalwood trees in the plantations of Kununurra, Western Australia

Life-saving Golden Rule: Never Perform Work in an Unsafe Manner

If there is one thing Rebekah Newton, Quality and Regulatory Officer, from Santanol, Mercer’s Sandalwood operation in Western Australia, understands, it is that protecting the health and safety of employees is foundational. 

“How do we ensure our people are working safely and following instructions? We pay attention,” Melissa Cruskall, Human Resources, Payroll, and Accounts Manager added to Rebekah’s comment, “And when the workplace is outside, the added complexity becomes how to control an environment that changes every day.”

In all workplaces, there are inherent challenges and hazards that need to be identified and addressed with proper safety measures. Providing a safe working environment requires the right equipment and training – so how does the Santanol team control what appears beyond their control?

Safety Starts on Day 1

The Santanol sandalwood plantation is located in a very productive area of Australia, surrounded by agriculture, mining, and gas production operations. With this abundance of natural resources, however, comes inherent environmental hazards – some experienced nationally and some unique to northern Western Australia. These conditions include extreme temperatures and biological hazards such as reptiles, deadly spiders and snakes.

Adding complexity to the environmental hazards is a workforce that, at times, is composed of mobile workers or ‘backpackers.’ These individuals often have short-term employment positions but, even though short-term, their health, welfare, and skillsets are of utmost importance to the Santanol operations.

All Santanol supervisors and employees understand that safety is the driver of workplace success. To ensure worker safety, orientation and onboarding training heavily focuses on working safely in difficult conditions with an emphasis on one of Santanol’s 9 Life-saving Golden Rules: “I never instruct an employee to perform work in an unsafe manner.”

The Life-saving Golden Rules are followed by all Mercer Operations, including Santanol. At Mercer, the parent company of Santanol, this is a critical safety rule within the global Mercer-wide safety program “Road to Zero”, a journey towards zero incidents in the workplace.

Life-saving Golden Rules to Live By

To understand the importance of “I never instruct an employee to perform work in an unsafe manner”, we look to the end of 2020 when a pruning crew member came to work having had no breakfast. The workday started early at 6:00 a.m., commencing with a toolbox talk and a safety message. Each employee was reminded about the importance of hydration and to ensure they had their hydration packs filled with water, ice, and hydrolytes. 

Working in the heat is a reality for many industries that operate in northern Australia. The exposure for workers who operate 8 hours per day without the ability to have air-conditioned vehicles or offices makes them susceptible to the risk of dehydration and heat stress. In January, temperatures can increase reaching as high as 50 C, so heat and hydration management strategies are a focus for the safety team at Santanol. 

Heat stress occurs when the body is exposed to more heat than it can cope with, leading to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Air temperature, humidity, clothing, intense physical activity, and work time duration are all contributing factors. Working in intense heat can raise the risk of body temperature and in a worst-case scenario, lead to heat stroke and possible death. The physical signs of heat stress occurring can range from muscle cramps to light-headedness, to speech confusion and/or fainting.

After the morning safety talk, the crew boarded a bus, equipped with large water coolers, ice, and biobreak facilities, and they were taken to the worksite. 

How a Hot Day Could Turn Deadly

The day commenced, and each employee was assigned a ‘buddy’ who would work closely with them in the fields. Pruning and shearing the trees on foot or by quad, the field maintenance was underway. As the hours passed, it was almost mid-afternoon and close to 40 degrees. Tired and feeling the heat, our employee who had missed breakfast didn’t say anything to their buddy and instead kept working; however, the buddy system worked as it was intended. 

As instructed in the morning safety orientation and toolbox talk, the buddy remembered to be cognizant of coworkers who exhibited symptoms of heat exhaustion (i.e. sweating, disorientated, moody, etc.). The buddy took the initial action to have their team member sit in the shade. This important first step recognized that there were potential health and safety issues. 

From recognition comes taking the proper steps to address the situation; in this case, by contacting a supervisor and continuing to help the employee still showing signs of severe and progressive dehydration even in the shade. The supervisor came by, water and fruit in hand, and the employee was guided to sit in the bus equipped with air conditioning to allow for cooling down the body temperature. 

That worker may not have noticed that their buddy utilized the “courage to intervene” to stop work, notify the supervisor, provide an assessment, and help create and implement a safety action plan that helped save their life. Yet by providing the right orientation, toolbox talks, proper onsite PPE and safety equipment, the buddy was able to do just that.

Unconscious Acts Lead to Real Consequences

Working in an unsafe manner may be an unconscious act by an employee brought on by failing to self-assess. But unconscious acts have very real consequences if not addressed appropriately. In the case of heat exhaustion, it may not be personally detected in the early stages, yet coworkers or supervisors may see a change in behaviour or performance. It is at this point that the employee must stop work until a full assessment is conducted. 

And how did our heat-exhausted employee make out? Fully rehydrated, rested, and with food supplied, the employee felt confident to go back out after the proper care and attention was provided. There was only one hour left in the day,  so the crew took it easy, and the supervisor became the 3rd buddy as an extra set of eyes to make sure that the team that went out together returned safely together. 

There is safety in numbers, so the 2-by-2 buddy system ensures that no worker becomes isolated or compromised by the local elements. All Mercer and Santanol supervisors and employees have permission to stop work when they see signs of unsafe acts or behaviours. As Santanol Managing Director, David Brocklehurst, summarized “For our workplaces, it is about communicating our values, and at Santanol, we value our people and their safety in what is such a hostile working environment.


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