At the time of going to print, news had just broke of the incident at the Beaconsfield Gold mine in northern Tasmania where three miners remained trapped 925 metres underground when an earthquake caused a rock fall in the shaft. Eleven of their colleagues, who were in different parts of the mine, escaped unharmed.
The incident was a chilling reminder of the hazards of underground mining, and also brought back memories of the Sago Coal Mine disaster in Tallmansville, West Virginia, USA, where an explosion caused the death of 12 miners.
Make no mistake about it: mining is a dangerous profession.
But what can mining company managers do to eliminate fatalities from their sites?
Christopher Towsey, chief operating officer for the Citigold Corporation Ltd , made some interesting points on the subject in his paper: Proactive Measures for Fatality Prevention in the Mining Industry – Why Fatalities Persist While Lost Time Injuries Decline, three years ago at the Mining Risk Management Conference in Sydney.
Safety equals profit
Firstly there should be a focus on fatalities with the same intensity and reporting as profit – responsible profit remains a valid goal.
Safety statistics should be the first set of numbers in Board papers and internal management reports, and publicly reported in Quarterly and Annual Reports.
Secondly, senior management (CEO, MD, GM) and preferably directors should attend funerals of all fatalities, subject to privacy and family permission. This would quickly drive home the point that improvement is needed.
Failure to attend the funerals sends a message to employees that management was doing something they regarded as a higher priority.
Focus on catastrophic risk
There should be a focus on catastrophic risk – not the Lost Time Injury Severity Rate (LTISR).
“Knowing that an airline has a low Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR) may be comforting for employees who work there, but tells prospective passengers nothing about the flight safety of the aircraft, the level of preventative maintenance or the mental state, political beliefs, flying skill and suicidal tendencies of the pilots,” Towsey said.
“Having a low LTIFR doesn’t make an airline safe to fly with. Similarly, a mine having a low LTIFR may not necessarily be a safe place to work.”
Communication of critical information in mining companies can always be improved.
Senior managers need mechanisms to cross-check data and sources, and to find out information directly themselves. This may involve by-passing the normal chain of reporting to seek information directly from two or three levels below their immediate subordinate.
Where there’s smoke…
Hazard reports and the subsequent action plans to address the identified hazards are a proactive weapon in the fight to eliminate fatalities.
Fatal incidents, because they are rare events, do not figure highly in the normal monthly statistics routinely reported. Companies need to be reporting on the indicators that something is amiss or things are starting to drift outside safe parameters.
‘Incident’ not ‘Accident’
Replace the word ‘accident’ with ‘incident’ at all times.
‘Accident’ implies that it was inevitable and not preventable, some sort of ‘bad luck’ or ‘Act of God’. Accept that all incidents and fatalities are preventable. However, they may not be readily predictable.
Predict and be proactive
All incidents are preventable if they are predictable.
Focus on predicting incidents. Where applicable, use project planning charts (Gantt, PERT, flowcharts) to predict when circumstances will exist that pose a hazard, where the hazard is located, who will be exposed to it, how long they will be exposed and then develop an action plan to intervene.
Mining employees are mainly male risk-takers. Risk-averse personalities do not seek employment in hazardous industries.
Pre-employment psychological and personality assessment is a proactive measure. Psychological and personality assessment of existing employees should be undertaken as soon as practicable.
Feedback of the personality assessment to employees in an educational role and a no-blame culture provides them with tools to manage their performance and their relationships with others.
Measure against KPIs
Managers cannot control if events are not measured against a benchmark or previous performance. KPIs do not have to be complex, but ideally should be numerical and time-based so that a percentage variance can be calculated and results graphed to provide quick visual assessment.
Many companies initiate action plans, but fail to follow-up to ensure actions are completed. Action plans need to be signed off by senior supervisors.
Management is about strategic interven-tion. Take steps to ensure the systems are working. Safety and health audits should be conducted annually but unexpectedly.
The external auditor should outrank the mine manager or Site Senior Executive (SSE) and report to the CEO. This ensures that the external auditor is not intimidated by the SSE who signs the auditor’s cheque. There is less benefit in an external audit if the site is given several months warning to prepare for it.
Automate where feasible
People cannot be injured or killed if they are not present when an incident occurs.
This article appears in the May 2006 issue of Australian Mining.