Developing Health and Safety in Mines

Phil Earl, Technical Director and Chief Engineer

The phrase “Zero Harm” is a widely used strapline throughout the mining industry as we try to combat having reached, statistically at least, a safety plateau. Internationally the number of injuries recorded decreased from 3,138 in 2015 to 2,662 in 2016, but this rate has slowed compared to previous years. The major causes of fatalities were still fall-of-ground incidents at 33%; slip and fall, falls from heights and fires together accounted for 21% and transport factors accounted for 14%. Global Mine Design Ltd is working to positively change the approach to mine design. Our approach, of using integrated monitoring networks to reinforce safe working conditions and provide input for ongoing data-driven mine planning decisions, is based on experience we’ve gained from years of monitoring excavation response in challenging active ground conditions.  Our expertise is used to help mine sites design ground support systems and create safe work protocols.

When talking about Health and Safety in general it would be fair to shine the spotlight on South Africa, where the legacy from earlier attitudes to worker safety still resonates in the drive to continually improve safe mining conditions. The South African Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) shows fatalities falling from 112 in 2012 to 93 in 2013, 84 in 2014 and 77 in 2015; 73 deaths were recorded in 2016.

Warren Beech (Head of Mining at Hogan Lovells in Johannesburg, South Africa), in his recent interview with Mining Weekly, explained his belief that two major factors are behind poor health and safety performance in South Africa’s mining industry:

“The primary issue is behaviour – the attitude and approach to health and safety at mining operations. The key to addressing behaviour is internalising a sense of safety. Health and safety at mines needs to go beyond implementation on site only, and needs to be embedded as common practice by all mine staff [regardless of whether they are at home or at work]. For example, vehicle speed limits, although mostly adhered to at mine sites, are quickly disregarded as soon as personnel leave the site, as enforcement is drastically reduced and the threat of being caught is less probable.

The second issue is the general instability in the mining sector, which affects the morale of mine management and staff, including political insecurity nationally and job insecurity as well as general commercial insecurity in the mining industry, with depressed commodity prices and variable demand from the once thriving primary markets… The mines went through major restructuring as a result of the international commodities downturn . . . in terms of demand and prices. Restructuring impacts on work teams, including supervision, the sense of camaraderie and smooth workflow.”

I believe we can see elements of these issues throughout the global mining industry.  In the UK, for example, the Health and Safety Executive published revised Mines Regulations in 2014 with emphasis on producing a single, modern set of regulations that are focussed on the control of risks from major hazards in mines. This is a timely update of the regulations, with the recent opening of Wolf Minerals’ Drakelands Mine and several other exciting mining prospects in the UK, such as Strongbow Exploration’s work to re-open the South Crofty tin mine in Cornwall, and Galantas Gold Corporation’s expansion of the Cavanacaw Mine in Northern Ireland.  In Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Labour published a Mining Health, Safety and Prevention Review in March 2015 that focussed on continuous improvement of occupational health and safety needs in the mining sector.

So, while great inroads are being made in terms of legislation and policy making, there is a long journey between legislation and ‘boots on the ground’ worker safety.  Global Mine Design always has an eye for the practical application of safe, economic, and productive mine design, and part of that comes from seeing the implementation of safety practices across multiple mining jurisdictions around the World.

Take a moment to examine the journey that stands behind typical Health & Safety policies on mine sites.


The drive to safe conditions began with legislation.

Without a doubt mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimate 1% of the world’s labour force is engaged in mining. Yet mining accounts for 5% of on-the-job fatalities. These fatalities can be caused by rock falls, tunnel collapses, fires, heat exhaustion as long with many other dangers. The historical list of long-term illnesses, injuries and disabilities associated with mining is also significant.

At the corporate level, the determination to succeed is linked to profits. In the past, mining corporations have been accused of circumventing safety systems, portraying the belief that they were not profitable.  This guarded approach to doing business, coupled with unfortunate impacts on workforce and the environment led to governments creating legislative bodies to enforce accountability through legally binding rules, under which mining companies must operate.

Thankfully, modern leaders understand that it is essential to nurture a mentality within the company that values social and environmental impacts – particularly the health and wellbeing of its employees.  I recently read a Case study about the Lockheed Martin Corporation – headquartered in Maryland, USA.  They are in fact a global security company, employing 146,000 people internationally, but this company adopted a commitment to Health and Safety practice that can be just as useful and profitable within mining, or any other industry. Over a five-year period (2003-2008) Lockheed Martin reduced the number of employees who missed work due to an injury from 530 employees to 280. Absences dropped from over 20,000 days missed to 7,820 days; a huge 56% reduction.  In that same time period, the company share price rocketed from c. $46 in July 2003 to c. $110 in July 2008.

In short if management shows Health, Safety and the Environment to be important to the business livelihood, your workers will see its importance and react accordingly, and in turn your shareholders and neighbours will take notice.  In mining this is often referred to as Community and Social Responsibility (CSR), or the ‘License to Operate’.

So, good management leads safe practices from the top down.  But how do we ensure that the workforce follows us along our journey to a truly ‘zero harm’ mining industry?  How do we make sure our workers report near misses in the workplace to the benefit of their team, without fear of repercussion?  Ultimately, how do we help empower them to take safety so seriously that they instinctively adhere to speed limits on the way home?

In the same way that the legislative bodies create Health and Safety in law, corporations need to set safety objectives in daily tasks to show what is and isn’t acceptable.  This leads directly to Mine Standards.  Mine Standards are the link between the mining regulations and the daily tasks of the workforce that are explained in Standard Operating Procedures.

Global Mine Design gets involved with Mine Standards in three very important ways.

  1. As auditors, we help mines review their current Ground Control Management and Mine Design standards to determine if they are up to date and effective in the workforce; if standards need improving, we help the site adopt Change Management procedures to track important changes in protocol.
  2. As technical and subject matter experts we help mines understand the critical and influential ground conditions and material properties that influence the rockmass response to mining; understanding how the mine may respond to the extraction plan allows the risks and benefits associated with different options to be considered before committing.
  3. As members of Technical Advisory Committees in various mining jurisdictions around the world our staff help share best practice; technical groups and committees are critical to feed ideas and information amongst peers – communication of good and bad experiences helps raise the overall standard of mine safety standards.

Marrying Best Practice and Mine Standards can deliver Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) that ultimately led us towards a Zero Harm operation.  But the process still requires diligence and commitment.  When GMD audits mine sites we often observe differences between written site procedures and the tasks carried out by the working group.  A typical defensive response by site workers is: “we can’t do it like that, we have our own way”.  Invariably, my concern in these instances is not with the workers because they usually they have found a perfectly safe and effective means to carry out their task; it is with the management team who do not effectively review their own practices.  Listening to those carrying out the tasks is one of the best ways to develop rock-solid, safe procedures that are referred to time and time again.  It is not good enough to “do as I say not as I do”.

The most undervalued aspect of engaging with the workforce is the development of a sense of ownership.  To spend time with a crew observing their tasks, for example installing ground support, is to learn the typical hazards: trips & falls, heavy lifting, machine interaction, unsupported ground, etc.  Ask the operators to suggest their own ways to improve their daily tasks.  Then rather than create procedures in isolation, bring the group together.  Show them where their input made the difference between a paper document and the training manual for their fellow team members.  When a workforce is engaged, they are less likely to suffer from the low morale that Mr Beech referred to earlier.

Training at all levels is critical. Offering regular refresher training, which includes key elements of ground related and other hazards for all personnel is a great way to ensure that safety becomes part of the mines culture.  Some of the best examples we’ve seen are from mines that encourage their own technical specialists to be involved in creating the training material, including making short videos and presentations of site-specific issues to address in a group environment.  Make it fun!

Cross-functional engagement also helps to develop crew Leaders, who could become the future of your business.  An interesting fact came out of a supervisor-training course that I attended myself a few years ago.  Amongst our group (and we were assured that other groups were just the same), many supervisors arrived at their post by chance – the last guy didn’t turn up so they got the job.  No formal training or probation was given – management simply expected him or her to rise to the challenge.  If we take a step back, training supervisors on how to be a supervisor is really, really important!

As always, communication is key.  Asking Leaders to personally perform environment, health and safety inspections puts the supervisor amongst the workforce to develop personal skills with their crew and help them look out for each other.  Honest reporting and prompt corrective action within the group should always be rewarded.  This collective desire to keep the group safe eventually becomes second nature.

The desire for each of us to go home safely to our families is an often-used approach in the quest to improve safety at work.  But an additional part of that is the secret desire a lot of us have to go to work the next day too – we’re proud of what we do, and what we’ve trained and worked hard to achieve.  We also spend a lot of time with our workmates and often socialise with them outside of work hours.  The thought of going back to work and one of our group not being present, because of a preventable incident at home, should be just as upsetting.  Ironically then, what if the way to make our co-workers stick to the speed limit on the way home is to make them want to come to work safe and sound tomorrow..?

If you would like any more information on the technical, training and auditing services offered by Global Mine Design, please contact us at [email protected]   Global Mine Design Ltd are Geotechnical Mine Design Consultants.  Our engineers use a wide range of ground monitoring data and analytical tools to help your team optimise their mine design and extraction strategy.  Experts in rock mechanics and seismic monitoring systems, our approach increases confidence within your production team and by nature reduces rehabilitation costs, brings efficiency improvements, and reinforces safe working conditions.