| Written by Mark Buzinkay
Having safety regulations in place does not automatically constitute a safe underground working environment.
In this extended post / whitepaper, we discuss the need for a safety culture in the mining industry.
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As mining has always been a hazardous workplace, safety is a prime concern. Safety laws have been essential to provide fundamental layers of regulation but failed to address ignoring or neglecting behaviour. Installing a positive safety culture within the workplace improves employee safety and impacts how employees feel about their company, increasing the positive feelings about their organisation.
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Underground mining has a long history and a long history of accidents. While industry leaders say that the total number of fatalities has decreased considerably since the early 20th century, tragic mining accidents are still happening. Although there are no accurate figures, estimates suggest such accidents kill about 12,000 people a year.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), while mining employs around 1% of the global labour force, it generates 8% of fatal accidents. However, the overall situation appears to be improving, as there is a downward trend in accidents' severity and fatalities. Moreover, these incidents are dropping with perhaps a few exceptions - countries like China and Russia - as the standards differ significantly from country to country.
China has the world's largest mining industry (up to three billion tonnes of coal/year produced) and accounts for 40% of global coal output. Still, it is also responsible for 80% of mining casualties worldwide. Maximising revenue and seeing the lives of miners dependable, safety rules are limited or non-existent. Miners are not able to speak freely for fear of losing their jobs. The weakness of labour laws and the lack of unions keep mines from being safe workplaces.
In the wake of the Chilean disaster in 2010, when 33 miners were trapped for weeks underground and eventually were rescued, the unions around the world have repeated calls for stricter safety standards. Better laws are needed.
But laws are just part of the solution to creating a safe environment for miners. In 2020, at least 160 jade miners died in a mudslide due to heavy rains in northern Myanmar. The rainy season lasts for four months in Kachin state, and landslides are widespread during this period. Although there are regulations on the mining of jade in the area, no laws are enforced, and there are no follow-ups. Many mining companies do not follow the guidelines at all. As another example, the Mariana mining disaster in Minas Gerais, Brazil, was attributed to the managing companies' severe lack of preparedness and oversight. The dam burst is considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history: The toxic mud of iron ore waste spanned 500kms across two Brazilian states, leaving hundreds homeless and polluting the region's most important river. It impacted mineral water supplies and endangered the livelihoods of the region's fishermen before floating into the Atlantic Ocean.
Having underground mining safety regulations in place does not automatically constitute a safe working environment. Besides not enforcing regulations, other aspects of negligent behaviour can contribute to hazardous situations:
1. Pushing people through the training program too fast
All workers should be adequately trained for the duties they are expected to perform, and this training must extend to health and safety in the working environment. Proper training on workplace safety provides awareness of potential hazards and how to handle them. But companies can sometimes feel pressured to get employees up to speed as quickly as possible; as effective training takes time, this leads to discrepancies. Following employee progress throughout safety training gives employers further understanding of how well employees grasp the safety guidelines.
2. Failure to involve the workforce
Employees are very often more aware of workplace hazards and their risks. For this reason, consultation is an important management tool on matters regarding health and safety in the workplace. Many organisations will have a designated health and safety spokesperson, chosen by the employees, who will work closely with the company's responsible person to manage and monitor health and safety. But in general, a lot can be learned by simply listening and talking to your workforce about their duties, the risks, and ways that might improve safety by reducing these risks.
3. Not reporting near misses
While some safety incidents result in workplace injuries, many scenarios don't result in injuries. Shell estimates one injury or fatality per 300,000 incidents. These situations may be written off as there is no specific injury to report. But companies should take these near-misses seriously. Once registered, these incidents should be investigated and tracked, as should the corrective actions they inspire.
4. Using the wrong tools for a task
To save money, alternate tools may be used to complete jobs in the workplace. A swap can initially save money, but it ultimately makes work less efficient and more dangerous, contributing to higher costs over time. Even if it is more expensive, the tool specific to the task is the only one that should be used. This choice will optimise productivity and improve workplace safety in the long run.
5. Delaying machine maintenance
Workplace accidents can often be attributed to faulty equipment. Machines with problems create a risk for employees who use them and those who work around them. A workspace can be made safer by both noticing when a machine is not operating as anticipated or when a person seems blissfully unaware that there is a potential accident on the horizon. Regular maintenance and inspections are vital in identifying potential risks and initiating prevention tactics. Scheduling inspections in advance is crucial to ensuring the smooth operation of machines and avoiding breakdowns.
The list of potential pitfalls relying solely on safety regulations is dangerously long. It shows that workplace safety depends on other factors too. Despite the declining accidents rate in countries with high standards, accidents lead to further investigations to learn more about the root cause. In most cases, negligence leads to near misses or incidents.
Ultimately, workplace safety isn't about avoiding legal violations and fines. It's about taking care of each other. Anyone can plunge into bad patterns and become lax about safety, so we must have each other's backs in the workplace. People have to be taught to be more observant.
An organisation's safety culture is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the dedication to and the style and mastership of an organisation's health and safety management.
Critical aspects of an influential culture are Management commitment, visible management and good internal communications. Responsibility at the Management level is considered vital as it will produce higher levels of encouragement and concern for health and safety throughout the organisation. When it comes to health and safety, managers must lead by example and appear regularly on the 'shop floor', talking about health and safety and visibly demonstrating their commitment by their actions. A positive culture debates health and safety as part of everyday work conversations.
Active employee participation in safety is essential to build ownership of safety at all levels and exploit employees' unique knowledge of their work. Again: listening to the people doing their job is critical. This can include active involvement in workshops, risk assessments, plant design etc.
A positive safety culture guarantees a proactive take on health and safety. The team is personally invested in their safety and the safety of others. Not only do they follow policy, but they do so willingly with the mindset of looking out for ways to increase site safety, reducing risk and the number of safety incidents that occur. If this is your organisation's safety culture, people who ignore health and safety rules are reported for breaking the rules.
Implementing a safety culture is a long-term process. The key to truly positive and effective safety culture is to ensure that everyone understands a single golden rule: Safety comes above all else. Safety is above profits, deadlines, management decisions, and anything. For example, suppose safety is your number one priority and part of your set core values (and your staff knows that). In that case, your safety-first attitude will evolve into a successfully developed safety culture (read more about mine safety management)
Besides this golden rule, which steps play a significant role in implementing a safety culture successfully?
Create a corporate vision for safety
Everyone in the company must be on the same page regarding the organisational vision for safety. Rules must apply to everyone and don't exclude any. This leads to resentment. There should be no member of your workforce that gets special treatment and can ignore the safety culture. Everyone is responsible for safe working practices to the same standards in a strong safety culture, from the CEO to the latest apprentice. It is impossible to reach your safety goal if all company stakeholders are not working towards the same target.
Develop a system for open communication
Companies with a strong safety culture invest in creating lines of open communication throughout their organisation. Keeping employees updated on new safety initiatives is vital to successfully implementing policies and practices. Monthly safety talks are a great way to share new information and allow employees to open communication around safety within the workplace.
Involve all levels of employees
Creating a safety culture starts from the ground up. Therefore, employees of all levels must be included in any new safety initiative's planning and implementation phase. Asking for feedback during the initial planning phases increases buy-in and prevents potential pitfalls further down the line during implementation.
Encourage workers to do the right thing
If employees don't feel they can come forward with problems for the risk of inciting anger or creating difficult situations, they won't. If work has to stop to make it safer, then that should always be seen as a good thing, and workers should be reassured they will not suffer as a result of coming forward. This sort of conduct should be encouraged and rewarded, even if it does come with a negative short-term impact on operations.
The reporting system should be focused on the positive, and employees should feel free to share safety matters without repercussions. As the team members are at the heart of your safety culture, they should have a voice in how safety culture is developed and addressed. Asking questions and engaging with the team is the way to go. This will help you identify directions of development and core problems with your current safety culture that you may not even know about. Rewarding employees who share safety issues is a great way to rebuild your system and encourage others to report.
Train employees in workplace safety
If your team doesn't understand how to follow safety practices, then safety culture will be confused and misrepresented. Sharing best practices and developing opportunities for employees to have hands-on learning sessions help employees retain and successfully implement new safety initiatives (check: miner technology and wearables).
Training is crucial, and not just during the initial introductory stages. It should also be ongoing to educate on health and safety policy modifications and serve as a reminder of the importance of excellent safety culture. Additionally, investing in quality training shows employees that you care about their safety increasing team member buy-in and support.
For any safety initiative to succeed, the procedure must be modelled from the top down. Managers must commit to embodying a safety-first work style and continuously demonstrate that safety is essential and valued. Suppose the management team doesn't take safety culture seriously. In that case, the safety initiative will run into many problems, from the rest of your team not taking it earnestly to ineffective policies being implemented because those at the top aren't paying close enough attention.
Reward good safety culture
Keeping team members motivated and updated about company progress is critical to driving safety initiatives. Just as valuable as disciplining rule breaks is rewarding those who follow policy. Establishing health and safety goals and targets, then it's common practice to discipline those who don't follow health and safety policy. This is an integral part of maintaining procedures, but it's not the only step you can take. Just as valuable as disciplining rule breaks is rewarding those who follow policy. Establishing health and safety goals and targets and rewarding teams that meet those targets develop a positive mindset toward a safety culture.
Work on continuous improvement plans
New and exciting initiatives can get a lot of buy-ins when they're first introduced, but as time goes by, they can quickly fade into obscurity. A company that truly embodies a safety culture understands that while success must be celebrated, there is always room for some improvement. Committing to constant growth and putting in place systems for continuous improvement ensures your organisation will not remain stagnant in their results but continue to strive for an injury- and accident-free work environment. On the other hand, if you're not constantly improving your health and safety process and keeping awareness fixed upon safe practice, safety culture can become neglected and easily ignored.
Hold employees accountable
Establishing a safety culture with strong values and goals is impossible without including some way of holding everyone accountable for the culture's success. It's a team effort, and every member makes a difference. With that in mind, you need to decide how you're going to recognise success and improve in the areas that need it. Responsibilities within an organisation must be defined at all levels, including policies and goals.
Installing a positive safety culture within the workplace improves employee safety and impacts the way many employees feel about their company, increasing the reputation of your organisation. Although implementing a safety culture is a long-term process, it also has long-term positive effects on workplace safety, avoiding loss of lives, health and assets. Positive safety culture is the living proof that safety comes above all else.