Mining's Corporate Memory - Does It Contribute To Mining Accidents?

In the decade prior to 2013 the Australian coal mining industry enjoyed 5 years without any fatalities. In the 2013/2014 financial year that safety record ended with a series of accidents during that year and more the following year. This type of safety spike and plateauing isn't unique to coal and experts believe it isn't just co-incidence either. As far back as 2006 the MISHC (Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre) found that many mining incidents can be attributed to decays in something called 'corporate memory'.

Every company builds up an accumulation of knowledge, data and information during its lifetime. This is corporate or organisational memory. Whilst a lot of corporate memory is stored across various tangible resources (hard drives, filing systems etc) some of it revolves around knowledge and experience embedded in individual employees. When those individuals leave the company some degree of loss of corporate memory invariably occurs because people take their knowledge with them. People also forget things, which is another way corporate memory decays.

So when the MISHC found that many mining incidents could be attributed to decays in corporate memory we shouldn't be surprised. When people who were around at the time of an incident move on, they take their particular knowledge of that incident with them. This is knowledge that has probably helped prevent further similar incidents from occurring whilst that person was around. Typically when someone has been involved in, witnessed, or been made aware of, a particular type of incident they're more likely to recognise the signs that another similar incident will occur and take preventative action, thereby ensuring the incident doesn't happen.

For instance, take trip hazards. Someone who has tripped over something, seen someone else trip over that something, or been made aware that something is a trip hazard, will be aware of other similar trip hazards and will automatically remove them before someone does trip over them. That's corporate memory at work. However, when that person leaves that environment, and hasn't trained anyone else to notice the same trip hazards, guess what happens! People start tripping over the same old trip hazards again because the particular piece of corporate memory that knew to remove these hazards before someone tripped over them has been lost.

The mining industry is particularly susceptible to losses in corporate memory for a number of reasons. Given the well-publicised aging of the mining workforce, there is a lot of corporate memory bound up in employees who are due to retire in the next decade or so. The mining industry has a large commuting work force and every time there is a shift change, some corporate memory is lost for the duration of the next shift. The mining industry regularly lays off employees during busts, with a resulting loss of corporate memory. The same applies with the industry's high staff turnover rate. Mergers are on the rise, and employees who are not taken across with the merger represent another loss of corporate memory. Rapid expansion, as happens during boom times, can lead to a dilution of knowledge within the company. New companies starting up new operations during boom times have very little corporate memory and must build O, H and S systems from scratch. All of these factors have been found to contribute to mining accidents.

Then there is the undeniable fact that quite often the knowledge is there somewhere within the company but those at the 'coal face' aren't aware of it. R DeMeulles summed it up beautifully in his 2002 work Measuring safety: How knowledge transfer supported an industry-wide safety initiative in Ontario mines, when he said, "it is rare to find that [a] hazard was new or unknown. Far more often, the knowledge of hazards and their controls resides somewhere in the organization or the industry, but for some reason has not filtered through to the people who need it, or has not been applied at the right time."

Those industries who have made a concerted effort to share accident information and document it so that others can benefit from the experiences of those who have 'been there, done that' have reaped the rewards by way of decreases in accidents and in lost time injuries. The global geophysical industry is a good example of this. Over the last 5 decades this industry has been sharing pertinent information not only to prevent similar accidents from occurring elsewhere but also to facilitate the development of industry safety documents that are accessible to all sectors of that industry.

In a similar strategy, the Australian coal mining industry has moved away from the concept of 'acceptable risk' to a proactive policy of preventative management instead. The rest of the mining industry is increasingly following suit. In the coal industry this has led to the development of a comprehensive central warehouse of safety intelligence collected across the industry. The data provides knowledge and management guidelines around operational risks by identifying not only what risks can occur in any given situation but also how to identify precursors to accidents, how to develop effective risk management programs including adequate training and induction of staff, as well as reporting guidelines and many other tools. The data warehouse can easily be expanded to incorporate data for other sectors of the mining industry.

Because quite often it isn't so much about recognising risk (we all know what a trip hazard looks like) but about putting in place proactive policies and controls that prevent accidents before they happen and reduce consequences if they do happen. In other words, identifying the circumstances that led to the trip hazard being where it was in order to prevent it being put there again, documenting what actions can be, or should be, taken to relocate it some place safer or failing that, routing people around it so they don't trip over it. That way, when the person responsible for removing trip hazards before they became a problem leaves, the processes and policies by which it needs to happen are documented and someone else can take over.

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