Creating A Safer Environment For Mine Employees With Behavioural Science

The World Counts keeps some very interesting facts and figures. Unfortunately, they're not always positive! Take this one for example – over 15,000 mining related deaths globally in 2018! Some authorities believe the actual figure is much higher, particularly when unregulated aspects of the industry, like artisanal mining, are factored in.

What this translates to is that mining is, and remains, one of the most dangerous industries both for those who work in it and also those who live close to operating mines. Obviously, this comes as no surprise to most of us who work in the industry! However, the 'danger' aspect is not evenly spread out over the world's mining economies. Developed countries like the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa etc have much lower fatality rates, although injury rates remain unacceptably high even in some of these countries. In the same period in the US for example there were less than 30 mining related deaths and just over 4,000 injuries. Australian mining related deaths for 2018 was just 9. And so on….
The global statistics however were enough to prompt a team of behavioural scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the US to launch an investigation into the industry. Their aim was to study how mining accidents happen from a safety culture aspect ie how human attitudes influence occupational health and safety (O H and S) in the mining workplace, and how these accidents can be reduced by altering the way employees view their responsibilities in this regard. 

Initially, although happy to participate, both managers and employees felt they were doing everything they could to minimise accidents and that they had all bases adequately covered. By the end of the project though it was apparent there are many viable steps mining companies, and any company that operates in the mining space, can implement to reduce risks and provide better lines of communication around work place health and safety.

The first aspect researchers looked at was how mining companies and their employees currently view health and safety issues. They were interested in finding out:
  • how employees and management communicate around O H and S,
  • how co-workers communicate amongst themselves on these issues,
  • how actively employees get involved in their company's O H and S policies,
  • how well employees understand these policies and the O H and S training they received.

Whilst all mining companies taking part in the study (around 40 of them) had reasonably comprehensive O H and S policies in place, the researchers found there were significant communication gaps in how those policies were communicated, implemented, and maintained. Three things in particular stood out. 

The first was the visibility or availability of management (or lack of) on site to reinforce and uphold safe work practices. Several questions around this were noted, including
  • Is O H and S 'just' something that gets addressed briefly during pre-shift meetings but is then 'forgotten' about for the rest of the shift?
  • Are managers constantly available (visible) on site throughout the day to address safety issues, and ensure compliance is maintained at all times?
  • Are they following up on, or through with, things they committed to doing?

Second – are the same messages and information being relayed to every shift in order to provide consistency across the operations?

Third – do managers involve their teams in the decision making process, particularly when it comes to integral safety issues, and thus give them a sense of ownership for these decisions? Do they ensure all employees are aware of, and understand, their O H and S responsibilities?

The researchers also looked at the risk tolerance of individual employees. How much do they pay attention to detail and adapt what they're doing to ensure safe work practices? Are they knowledgeable when it comes to all the various risks associated with doing their job properly? Some employees were then involved in further research that studied how their work, and the way they performed that work, affected their level of risk, particularly around dust exposure.

Health problems caused by exposure to dust are among the major issues experienced by mine workers so the researchers were particularly keen to see how dust control and dust monitoring technology could help improve awareness of these hazards for the workers themselves. To this end employees were required to complete a pre-shift survey to indicate how well they understood their exposure levels and how much they were committed to managing their work to minimise the impact on them. They were then fitted with a helmet cam that recorded their immediate environment whilst they performed their work as per normal.

At the same time, monitoring equipment kept track of their exposure to dust and after each shift, the footage from the cameras was linked to the data recorded by the monitoring equipment. This allowed both researchers and workers to connect the varying degrees of dust exposure experienced by the workers with whatever they were doing at the time. In this way 'hot spots', where dust exposure was higher for the employees, could be identified.

Researchers were also very interested to note that many of the employees who took part in this research additionally spent some of their own time reviewing the footage, assessing what it meant for their health, and working out ways to improve the way they worked to reduce their risk.

Thus it is apparent that applying principles of behavioural science can indeed improve workplace occupational health and safety. Simply implementing, changing, or upgrading on site engineering controls and involving employees in these processes can often lead to immediate improvements. For example, providing employees with helmet cams and monitoring their working environment for dust exposure then allowing them to see the results triggered an active interest in those employees around taking responsibility for improving the way they worked in order to improve their own on job health and safety. When researchers followed up some 6 months later, they found many of these employees were still actively maintaining the safer work practices they'd identified, and had control over.

Another outcome of the research was that it was able to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the various companies' safety cultures ie how well they were communicating their O H and S policies to their employees, and the extent to which their employees tolerate the risks they face on the job. In companies where this tolerance is relatively high (ie where there is a culture of employees being inclined to 'live with' safety issues rather than attempting to resolve or remove them), managers may find communicating and addressing worker safety a challenge. However, being able to recognise when and to what extent this tolerance exists is the first step towards addressing the issue, and ultimately improving workplace safety.

It all comes down to communication. Managing health and safety adequately is very much a tailored operation. Each company is different. Therefore, a standard industry-wide solution is not going to work everywhere. In recognition of this, the researchers developed a scorecard system that allowed managers and employees to keep a record of THEIR communications around health and safety. The results of those scorecards, when collated, provided the companies with a very good idea of how they tracked in this regard, and identified opportunities for improvement. Companies were then able to use this and other data to develop and update their OH and S training as needed.

Another thing to come out of the research is that when employees are able to have an input into occupational health and safety policies and training that directly affects them, they're far more likely to buy into it and take a vested interest in improving their own working conditions, and health.

However, the researchers also warned that management must remain committed to ensuring that the policies themselves and communication around those policies is adequate, clearly understood by all parties, and part of the company's overall culture. That way, when key figures move on to other things, or retire, the system doesn't fall in a hole because they're no longer there to keep it going.
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