Miners digging deeper on safety front

Richard Roberts

‘If our goal is not zero harm, or to go beyond zero harm, then why are we here?’

There were many references to icebergs, and what value they (do or don’t) bring to presentations, at this week’s International Mine Health and Safety Conference in Western Australia. They are definitely a good metaphor for what’s going on below the surface of the industry’s various public battles, including the health and safety one.

Miners have talked a lot in the past decade in exploration and investment forums about the industry’s easy money being a thing of the past.

It might be that the real truth of this mantra can only be appreciated at industry events that dig into the challenges facing today’s front-line leaders.

The Perth conference hosted by one of the world’s top mining-professional organisations, the circa-15,000-member Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, or AusIMM, highlighted the complexity of what’s in front of the people in charge of core assets of mining companies employing hundreds of millions, or billions, of capital, and hundreds, or thousands, of people.

Not the geological, metallurgical, geopolitical and engineering complexity (all increasing, apparently).

No, here the spotlight was on the currently very dense human resources landscape.

Again, while mainstream business and mining events have slogans like “people are our most valuable asset” and “safety is our core value” plastered on promo pages and placards, it’s at forums like the one in Perth that attendees get a real sense of the costs – to people and budgets – of public policy implementation. And a true appreciation of the risks – to people, companies and maybe the industry as a whole – being attached to not getting it right.

The conference heard that as well as a good grasp of rocks, chemicals and commodity markets, modern mine managers are going to need better psychosocial literacy and more than a passing conversance with robotics and data science.

Beyond individuals and the broader responsibilities they carry, management teams are going to look and sound different in 10 years’ time.

The first chapter in the new rulebook they’re using to manage the interaction of (fewer) people, (more) smart machines, (deeper) rocks and (maybe) intermittent energy is probably being written now.

“The working landscape across the world is in the midst of a major paradigm shift,” Joanne Farrell, former managing director of Rio Tinto Australia and current chair of Safe Work Australia, said in a keynote address.

“There have been rapid advances in technology and new ways of working, resulting in fissuring of the traditional workplace.

“We have new methods of work, changing concepts of who is a worker, with contractors, consultants and the gig economy emerging.

“Employers will need to understand the impact and potential harm to workers of emerging technology, including the emergence of new work, health and safety hazards.”

Veteran Australian mine safety investigator David Cliff said “great improvements in safety performance” had been made since the introduction of risk-based health and safety laws more than 20 years ago. The industry’s management of health and safety had also changed significantly since a string of multi-fatality incidents in Queensland, New South Wales and WA in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Cliff, professor of OHS in mining at the University of Queensland, said at the Perth conference the industry’s safety performance markers had generally flat-lined and “any further improvement” would require more thorough and diligent focus on inherent physical hazards as well as addressing “underlying issues such as mental wellness”.

“Automation is bringing major production and safety benefits but at the same time other factors such as the reduction in workforce numbers and ever-increasing production pressures are leading to high turnover rates,” he said.

“This in turn causes a loss of experience and expertise.

“Of particular importance is the recognition of psychosocial wellness on workforce safety.

“Many of these factors are not unique to mining, however, they may be exacerbated by the scale of mining, the remoteness of mines and family-unfriendly rosters.”

Safe Work Australia chair, Joanne Farrell

Farrell said there was an expanding log of psychosocial hazards and risks that “must be treated the same as physical hazards and risks”.

“Physical hazards … have often been the priority,” she said.

“It’s easier to see or anticipate an injury from a physical hazard than understand or foresee the harm from a psychosocial risk or hazard.

“What you call a hazard is less important than making sure you and your workers have a shared understanding of the problem and the action you can take to manage the risks”

“To add to that many psychosocial hazards, including sexual harassment, have in the past been treated as a discrimination or HR issue, without considering the work health and safety implications.

“And workers may talk about psychosocial hazards in different ways, or call them different things.

“For example, workers today talk about feeling burnt out, stressed, or fatigued, or complain that workplace culture is toxic.

“What you call a hazard is less important than making sure you and your workers have a shared understanding of the problem and the action you can take to manage the risks.”

Farrell said Safe Work Australia data indicated work-related psychosocial injuries had, on average, longer recovery times, higher costs, and more time off work compared with physical injuries.

“So there’s an economic imperative for businesses to be proactive in preventing harm, as well as a human one,” she said.

More broadly, Safe Work Australia’s research showed the country’s economy “would be A$28.6 billion larger each year in the absence of workplace injuries and fatalities”.

“These days there is a much greater understanding of the personal, community and economic importance of work health and safety.”

This awareness, coupled with mining’s technical and public relations challenges, has the industry gravitating faster towards technological sea-change and more urgent cooperation in areas of perceived common ground between companies. Exhibit A would be the intercompany cabals set up fairly recently to try to speed delivery of massive, non-diesel equipment.

It is clear the major human-centric shift in workplace culture and safety metrics sought in the industry can only be achieved with similar high-level cooperation.

A conference panel featuring senior health and safety leaders from BHP and Fortescue Metals Group, and an experienced Rio Tinto operations manager, was asked to talk about the “shared challenge of fatality prevention” in the industry, as well as future directions.

On the former, the Perth-based global head of health at BHP, Melanie Fisher, said work the three companies had done on a Respectful Workplaces education and training program marked something of a breakthrough.

“That was the first time across my career that I’ve really seen that genuine collaboration in this space, where we actually put our money where our mouths were and genuinely worked together,” she said.

“And I think the outcome has been incredibly successful.

“We know our journey to health, safety and fatality prevention needs to be collective and there’s no commercial advantage in not sharing our knowledge and information.”

More than two years after publishing a damning independent external review of the workplace culture of its core iron ore operations in WA, Rio Tinto was “still maturing” on its journey toward “mentally healthy workplaces”, the general manager of its major new Rhodes Ridge project, Kent Franey, said.

“From where we’ve been a couple of years ago to where we are today, we are a much more mature, more balanced operation and organisation than where we were,” he said.

“That’s come with a lot of pain as well.

“I do think our leaders are really transitioning from where they were five years ago to what they have to do now as a leader.

“It’s a really difficult job for them out there, to try and understand those psychosocial elements required of them to manage their teams and manage the expectations of the business.”

FMG general manager health, safety and risk, Zara Fisher said: “Increasing the literacy of our whole workforce, but particularly our leaders, has been a really critical part of our work.

(Left to Right) Kent Franey, Zara Fisher, Michael Quinlan and Melanie Fisher

“It’s one more thing that you’re asking your frontline leaders in particular to be competent to see and support.

“So that psychosocial literacy is really important.

“Are we really setting our leaders and our team members up for success, particularly in an environment where we’re introducing more and more complexity into our workplaces, new risks, decarbonisation and all of those sorts of things?”

Asked about “moving the needle” on workplace health and safety, Zara Fisher said FMG saw “enormous opportunity” in new technology, particularly automation and AI, to add greater predictive capability where the industry had tended to be reactive.

“It’s early days but we see a huge opportunity to leverage the technology,” she said.

“We see a real opportunity to align that with some of the new thinking in the safety social sciences for human organisational performance.

“With new technology – with AI, predictive analytics – we can start to bring together the equipment health data, people data, health and safety data and [achieve] that thing that’s always eluded us, which is a leading safety index that can kind of help us to focus on areas most at risk.

“That is more available to us than it’s ever been.

“We’ve got a small team of data scientists working within our health and safety team [and] there’s some great work happening around injury prevention in that space.”

Panel moderator, University of NSW emeritus professor in the School of Management and Governance, Michael Quinlan, said: “One of the shifts with automated systems has been that the maintenance workers are now a group at risk, particularly, because the workspaces are often not designed as human entry anymore.”

Franey said Rio Tinto’s limited foray, to date, into AI had focused on predictive maintenance.

“When you start looking at … where [injuries] are occurring [and] how they’re occurring, I do think the more we can get out of that reactive space into predictive maintenance, we are going to see a better outcome in terms of safety performance and hopefully over the longer term a further reduction in fatalities,” he said.

Melanie Fisher said after four years fatality free the world’s largest mining company was rocked by three deaths over 12 months “and we are relentless to make sure that this never happens again”.

“If our goal is not zero harm, or to go beyond zero harm, then why are we here? We have to be absolutely committed to that,” she said.

“We’re using multiple different avenues to attack this [but] we always take a human-centred approach.

“We’re humans; we’re not robots.

“We know that human and organisational factors have a profound influence in terms of contributing to these events so we want to be focused on those behavioural factors like fatigue, physical capabilities and health conditions that do impact a person’s ability to perform tasks safely.

“We have spent a lot of effort looking at psychological factors like stress … that affect someone’s attention and judgment.

“When we look through our catalogue of critical controls the majority rely on continuous human vigilance and the research on concentration tells us that people are only concentrating 50% of the time when you add in other psychosocial factors.

“One of the initiatives that we’ve developed is Modelo Proactivo, which is a platform developed internally that uses predictive analysis to anticipate and characterise incidents with fatality potential. It was created out of a collaboration which took some time across technology, HSE, operations and HR. And it supports how we approach the material management of safety risks across BHP.

“It’s a risk intelligence insight platform that leverages critical safety-related data from multiple sources to create proactive and continuous decision making about risk reduction and fatality potential.

“But it’s not perfect. It is more like a weather forecast.

“We’ve got another similar platform using different data sets around psychosocial hazards.

“It’s a very similar platform to predict where see where we see hotspots of psychosocial harm, as well as mapping safety incidents.

“So we’re doing a lot in this space. But I think there’s a lot more that we need to do around machine learning and using data effectively.

“The thing I can say about weak signals and moving the needle is that from a distance, red flags generally look amber, and we’re pretty good at kind of absorbing the amber flag. We need to get better at that.

“I think there are moments that matter that we need to get better at making judgment calls about and supporting our leaders and literacy and capabilities to respond to those psychosocial factors.

“We’re good as an industry now at identifying them, but as far as actually addressing them, that’s the really hard part.

“We need to build that muscle there.

“I just implore us all to work together and get better at this.”


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