Greater understanding of mechanisms involved in accidents has led to creation of highly sophisticated safety and training programs that enable individuals to better visualize their relationship within the workplace environment.
Greater understanding of mechanisms involved in accidents has led to creation of highly sophisticated safety and training programs that enable individuals to better visualize their relationship within the workplace environment.
Every company has its health and safety policy, yet accidents keep on happening. Training can only go so far in addressing the problem; personal responsibility is key. E&MJ  looks at some of the issues.

By Simon Walker, European Editor

Accident statistics always shock. They make headlines. So do near-misses…“Weren’t they only lucky!”

Mining is—and always has been—recognized as being a hazardous occupation. Those statistics don’t lie, although without question, the trend overall is continuing to decline. Mechanization has provided one driver, while a greater understanding of the mechanisms involved in accidents has led to the creation of highly sophisticated safety and training programs that enable the individual to visualize better his or her relationship within the workplace environment.

Yet, there can never be complete assurance that although training has been given and received, future action by the individual, the system or both, will be such as to minimize potential risks. As Robert Peters and Carin Kosmoski discussed at length in their review on why miners may not report safety-related issues (E&MJ, November 2014, pp.56–59), there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest reasons why this can be the case, not the least of which is the belief “that injuries are a fact of life in certain lines of work”—including mining.

It is but a short step from this to the fatalistic perspective that “if your time is up, that’s it,” which is at best unhelpful and at worst can be positively dangerous in its own right, regardless of the circumstances.

So how can companies operating in the minerals sector worldwide—exploring, mining, contracting, constructing, transporting or whatever—increase the chances of their safety campaigns being received positively, and their safety policy being implemented in the most proactive manner? Having a greater appreciation of psychology is one mechanism; employing the media concepts that today’s miners use in their everyday life to implement campaigns to which they can refer to on a personal level.

A number of recent health and safety-orientated conferences have included papers that address this very issue, showing that there is now an increasing awareness that it is important not only to provide the right message, but also to get the right messenger to deliver it.

In a paper presented at the 2014 Workplace Safety North (WSN) Mining Health and Safety Conference, held in Sudbury, Ontario, in April, Roberta Spicer and Derek Budge from the Redpath Group told delegates that in their view, overall trends suggest that occupational fatality rates have plateaued. Spicer is the company’s superintendent for health and safety, while Budge is its director for health, safety and environment.

“Falling injury rates can be deceiving,” they went on, pointing out that “a low or decreasing injury rate does not guarantee that fatal risks are being adequately managed.”

They illustrated the point by showing lost-time and fatality trends in mining in the USA, Australia, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec. In each case, they pointed out, the lost-time injury trend has been emphatically downward over the past 10 to 15 years, whereas fatality rates have not shown any comparable reduction. Indeed, the fatality rate in Québec’s mining industry could be construed to have been on an upward path, they suggested, albeit on the basis of very few numbers.

Since 2010, Redpath has been planning, then rolling out a company-wide fatality-prevention program across all of its contract sites, with the goal of eliminating fatal risks and fatalities in the workplace. Its objectives include maintaining a commitment from all leaders to implement the program, engaging all employees in the process of fatality prevention, and ensuring universal compliance with its “cardinal rules” and fatal risk elimination protocols.

And while the 10 cardinal rules may appear to be obvious—such as “Never move or operate machinery or equipment without the appropriate training or authorization”—the very fact that they are needed is a reflection on perceived failings within the mining workforce to engage safety as its No.1 priority.

Feedback comprises a key part of the system, with incident reports including an evaluation of not only what happened, but whether there was noncompliance—either deliberate or accidental—with the company’s rules and protocols. According to the authors, it works, with Redpath having cut its total medical injury frequency rate by more than 40% in the two years after the program was introduced.

Experts say fatigue is inherent in all shiftwork operations, and directly correlates with human error and accidents
Experts say fatigue is inherent in all shiftwork operations, and directly correlates with human error and accidents.

Also speaking at the 2014 WSN conference, Dr. Lou Francescutti, president of the Canadian Medical Association, took a look at age in relation to causes of injury and death. For Canadians aged 44 or less, he said, injuries are the leading cause of death, and for those aged 19 or under, injuries exceed all other causes of death. Why?

Francescutti also noted that while 15- to 24-year-olds make up 20% of the country’s workforce, this age group accounts for 25% of all work-related injuries and 33% of fatalities. He went on to explain that young workers cannot assess risk accurately as their brains are not fully developed until age 24–25, and “in packs” have a tendency to take greater risks.

Other reasons for risk-taking include not wanting to attract negative attention, wanting to please supervisors, “really needing the money,” and adopting the attitude that “it can’t happen to me,” he went on. Read through the Peters and Kosmoski article in November’s E&MJ, and these excuses seem terribly familiar.

So, what does it take to get results, Francescutti asked. Management vision, commitment and drive is the essential cornerstone, he said. The main drivers are line ownership of safety, involvement in safety activities and training, comprehensive safety systems and practices, and the use of safety organization specialists. Having safe equipment and a safe physical environment in the workplace is vital, as is having a safety-aware, trained and committed workforce. The end result? Outstanding safety performance.

Francescutti went on to list 12 elements of a positive safety culture:
• High levels of management safety concern, involvement and commitment;
• Safety prioritized over profits and production;
• Good organizational learning; Frequent informal safety communication;
• Good job communication;
• Good plant design, working conditions and housekeeping;
• Confidence in safety rules, procedures and measures;
• Trust in the workforce to manage risk;
• Satisfaction with training;
• High levels of employee participation in safety;
• Acceptance of personal responsibility for safety; and
• A willingness to speak up about safety.

Most people are familiar with Swiss cheese, if not with the substance itself, then with the general concept it encompasses. Solid on the outside, with random hidden holes. Nowadays, however, Swiss cheese is being used to illustrate what can happen when the holes (representing failures in safety mechanisms) become aligned.

In one of the keynote presentations to last year’s NSW Health & Safety Conference, held in May 2014 in the Hunter Valley, Peter Wilkinson of the Noetic Group looked at disasters—rare but catastrophic events—and what has been learned from them in terms of safety policy and training. “Such events are characterized by complexity, with no one root cause,” Wilkinson said, “but more often a combination of unsatisfactory circumstances in equipment, processes and systems, and people. They may come as a great surprise (to some)—but are there warning signs?” he asked.

“Allegedly, 80% of all accidents are caused by human error,” Wilkinson went on, “but modern accident causation models show we need failures in or by individuals (and not just ‘front line workers’); systems and processes; and engineering.” And it is when these factors overlap—or to use the Swiss cheese analogy, the holes in adjacent slices align—that the risk of an accident increases significantly.

There is commonly a lack of focus on barriers or controls, he explained. “The implication of the Swiss cheese model is that all barriers have gaps or weaknesses—perfection is rare. And while risks do not eventuate most of the time because they are stopped by the redundancy in the defenses, the absence of incidents is not the same as having effective controls. We need to identify the gaps in the barriers,” he said.

Three months later, speaking at the Queensland Mining Industry Health & Safety conference in Townsville, John Coughlan from Rio Tinto presented an illustration of just how Swiss-cheese alignments can impact an operation in real life. Coughlan, general manager for operations at the Kestrel coal mine, described the seemingly unconnected sequence of events that led to workers being within an exclusion zone underground when a new ventilation borehole from surface broke through. Fortunately, their injuries were minor despite an estimated 75 m3 of slurry and cuttings falling from the hole into the workings.

The factors involved in the incident included a last-minute change of personnel, ineffective barricading of the heading, other important management activity in the mine office, and an erroneous “proceed” instruction to the drilling crew to resume work. As Coughlan confirmed, “a procedure was identified as a necessary control for the interactions during the drilling activity. However, by not having considered the increased complexity in this case, this procedure was not prescriptive in sign-off, hold-point and handover steps necessary for the next stage of the activity to commence in a controlled manner.

“The sequence of events and changes leading up to the moment the two individuals were exposed to the release of material into the underground workings provides an illustrative case study of how subtle changes and their lack of recognition accumulate and morph a job that is thought to be under control into a potentially serious exposure,” he added. “This is often described as the Swiss-cheese model.”

Following the incident, the mine introduced new mechanisms to ensure that the hazards and risks associated with one-off or new jobs are understood and managed, with formal sign-off procedures for all of the work groups and supervisors involved.

Without question, the state of a person’s mental health can have a major effect on their capacity to work safely, so it is perhaps not surprising that this came up for discussion at all three of the conferences cited here. Having said that, it is probably not that long ago that mental health issues would have warranted scant regard outside the medical profession, and certainly not in relation to workplace practices, so that at least can be seen as a significant advance.

In this context, mental health is seen encompassing conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress, or the effects of alcohol or drug abuse. At the NSW conference, Katie McGill from the Hunter Institute of Mental Health noted that every year, around 20% of the population will experience some kind of mental condition, with the proportion rising to nearly half on a life-time basis. On the individual level, she said, risk factors include low self-esteem, low self-efficacy and poor coping skills, all of which can impact how well (or otherwise) a person can undertake their work tasks, and how they might respond to challenges as they occur.

As Geoff Denman and Jem Wallis of Cat.Dog, an Australian consumer research firm, pointed out in their keynote at the same meeting, “behavioral theory tells us there are many unintended filters, which distort the way we think about risk. Personality affects perception of risk,” they went on, so clearly if a person is depressed or anxious, the way in which they might approach a task could be different from the way that they would otherwise do it if they were in good mental health.

Throw in another factor: fatigue. Work a succession of 10- or 12-hour shifts, and response time to crisis situations lengthens significantly. As Bill Davis, vice-president for operations at U.S.-based Circadian Technologies, explained to the Sudbury conference, fatigue is inherent in all shiftwork operations, and directly correlates with human error and accidents. Looking specifically at surface mine haul-truck accidents, 93% are caused by human error, he said, with 60%–70% of these being fatigue-related.

And, of course, fatigue on the job is only part of the picture. As Dr. Leila Coelho from Coal Services Health in NSW pointed out, the drive home after a shift can be as hazardous, if not more so, than the work itself. With fatigue a top-three factor in road deaths in the state, she said, a driver is four times more likely to have a fatal fatigue accident if driving between 10 p.m. and dawn—prime time for a 6 a.m. clock-in or going home after back-shift.

Fatigue is a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces a person’s ability to perform work safely and effectively, Coelho stated. Both work and non-work related factors can also cause fatigue, which becomes an issue when workers at risk of fatigue perform safety-critical tasks as part of their role.

“If you want to get a message across to young people, use the language that they do.” That seems to be a fairly obvious approach, and one that can be extended in context to include the way that the message is transmitted, as well as its content.

Hence the increasing interest in using social media as a means of instilling safety concepts in that section of the workforce that is seen to be at greatest risk. Speaking at the 2014 WSN meeting, A.J. Boulay from Laurentian University’s computational sciences department described how persuasive social media can be applied in mining health and safety.

Mining health and safety is very much about changing the attitudes and behaviors of miners to reduce error, Boulay said, while noting that the use of persuasive technologies such as interactive computer systems to effect these changes is already widespread—in social media.

One aspect of human error that has recently received increasing attention in the scientific world is the lack of situational awareness, Boulay added. Situational awareness helps operators or teams gain a better sense of the situation they are in and understand how information, events and their own actions can impact task completion now and in the future.

Levels of influence within an organization run from the overarching corporate safety culture and management system to the operator-machine interface on the job. Since errors occurring at any of the levels involved can lead to operator error, and hence increase the chance of an accident, it is important to identify where in the system the failings are taking place. Ultimately, it is poor safety culture that has to be addressed, he stated.

Boulay also pointed out that persuasive technologies include not only social media, but technologies such as video games designed for mining health and safety, and 3-D virtual reality mine design interfaces. Citing what he referred to as “The Principle of Social Facilitation,” he observed that “People are more likely to perform a well-learned target behavior if they know they are being observed via computing technology, or if they can discern via technology that others are performing the behavior along with them.”

The suggestion that peer influence through social media can have a positive impact on workplace behavior is clearly an area that needs further investigation. What is important, of course, is that it can be used as another tool in a multifaceted approach to installing a strong sense of safety awareness, and is not the be-all and end-all that renders other, more traditional methods redundant.

An effective safety leader has a personal commitment to safety, encourages the safe behavior of others, and can hold others accountable for their safety performance.
An effective safety leader has a personal commitment to safety, encourages the safe behavior of others, and can hold others accountable for their safety performance.

As this article has discussed, one of the biggest challenges in getting the safety message across to the people who need it most is the manner in which it is done. Anyone who has worked on a mine, or in any other industrial or commercial setting for that matter, will have seen the noticeboards in the office corridor; at the site gate; in the canteen; wherever. The question remains: just how effective are they in reality?

As Denman and Wallis explained, some groups perceive risk differently than others, with attitudes to risk depending on how it is presented. Emotion is a driver of behavior, and the communication of risk is challenging, they stated.

“Effective persuasion is discovering what people already believe, and then playing that back to them in an engaging way,” they added.

“Apply this to visual messages in mines,” was the suggestion. Research into the way that messages are perceived, that the authors had undertaken at several mines in New South Wales and Queensland, had shown that general compliance signs have the highest spontaneous recall. Conversely, they found that there was no spontaneous recall of other visual health and safety communications. Typical notice-board displays were often cluttered, with a lack of rotation and, more importantly, a lack of perceived relevance. All too often, they said, safety information relied on verbal communication.

Using as an example an image of an incident where an operator had driven an ADT with its body still raised under a conveyor bridge, “years of experience and training can be undone by just one moment of complacency or poor judgement,” they said.

Safety campaigns that have a very positive response have a high level of impact and arrest the viewer’s attention with graphic images and clear consequences, they said. The message must be both simple and clear.

The main message must also be consistent: “You need to stop and think. You need to keep your mind on the job. In the end, your safety is up to you. There are major consequences if you take risks.” And there must be a message rotation strategy every three to four months, since a common response to their research was: “you stop looking at them once they’ve been there a while.”

A consistent thread from all three conferences was that the global mining industry is still not learning from past mistakes, although today’s health and safety management has an unprecedented array of tools to use, to ensure that the message is both sent and received. At the Sudbury meeting, Ron Price, superintendent at the Hoyle Pond mine for contractor Dumas Mining, said that by encouraging workers to report “everything,” the company was able to analyze the details of each incident or near-miss. The answer, he said, was always the same: somebody was not following procedure.

With a new, enforceable safety policy in place, with penalties for safety violations, the situation improved to the extent that Dumas did not have even a single first-aid incident in 2013 at Hoyle Pond.

“What does effective safety leadership look like?” asked consultant Clinton Strahan to his Hunter Valley audience. “An effective safety leader has a personal commitment to safety, and encourages the safe behavior of others. And,” he said, “can hold others to account for their safety performance.”