‘Whole list of psychosocial factors’ to be addressed: Rio Tinto manager

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Rio Tinto's Rebecca Morton-Stephens.
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Mining companies need to “look under the covers” to identify workforce psychological risk markers and start to “demystify” an expanding list of potential new hazards, Rio Tinto manager occupational health Rebecca Morton-Stephens told the AusIMM’s Minesafe International Conference 2022.

“I think we have always looked at accident risk in a particular way and that’s what we have talked about to the point where all our operational leaders are health and safety professionals in a traditional sense,” Morton-Stephens said. The health and injury management specialist of 20 years was speaking on a panel focusing on the critical role of professional standards in improving mining health and safety.

“Where we have got to now is to broaden our understanding of the actual risks, so it’s not just accident risks, it’s psychosocial risks as well as bullying, sexual harassment and racism, which are the hot topics right now because there is lots of that in the media. But they aren’t the only risks that exist in that space,” she said.

The panel featured Morton-Stephens, AusIMM chief advisor, professional standards, Leigh Slomp, CSA Global manager corporate and principal consultant, Ivy Chen, and moderator, AusIMM CEO Stephen Durkin.

Minesafe heard that regulation alone could not mitigate psychosocial factors such as high workloads and work pressure, lack of sense of community, and limited co-worker or management support. Professional standards had to be raised through initiatives that ultimately promoted improvements in workplace culture.

The mining industry in Australia had been successful over time in reducing physical workplace hazards, the importance of which has been progressively elevated along with the standing of health and safety professionals. Now they had a range of new issues to deal with.

“There is a whole gamut of things we just haven’t thought fit into the HR bucket,” Morton-Stephens said.

“We have to learn to apply the same risk processes we have for accidents, or physical risks – working at heights, crushing, entanglements – [and] think about this more broadly. There is a whole list of psychosocial factors that we need to start considering.

“Where I see health and safety playing a part is in really demystifying that for our organisations and making it not seem so overwhelming to deal with – those hazards that we haven’t been trained to think about before.”

Durkin said the industry was grappling with that increasing health and safety complexity, and how to apply lessons from the paradigm shift around attitudes to workplace accidents.

“We need to unpack … how we drive that same type of thinking to problems such as mental health and workplace culture,” he said. “As we continue to remove physical and other observable risks from the workplace, we believe further improvements to workplace health and safety outcomes across the mining industry demand a focus on less tangible risk factors such as mental wellbeing, societal attitudes and workplace culture.”

Chen, a geologist with CSA Global who has been a company director and worked in government and regulatory roles, said laws provided an important baseline for professional standards while industry codes also gave essential guidance.

“Leigh pointed it out really well when he quoted Ivor [Roberts from the Western Australian Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety] in that regulation is now moving beyond just the regulatory rules,” she said. “The structure is provided by the different regulations [and] the different codes. That’s the starting point. Without those codes we are a bit lost at sea because everybody gets to set their own standards and meet whatever standard they set.

“But because we have all agreed to adhere to these codes they are there as the baseline.

“It’s the bottom of what we need to adhere to.

“Professional codes and standards encourage us to strive beyond that and that’s what we aim for. Having the rigour of regulations, I think, allows the worst parts to be minimised or eliminated but importantly identify what these elements are that fall below the basement mark and then say that’s definitely not on.

“The comeback for falling below the baseline is very, very clear: penalties, fines [and] jail terms. We need that carrot and stick balance. Everyone can all say we strive for excellence but without that strict component that regulation provides we don’t have the encouragement to not fall below.”

Slomp said: “The regulation does set that minimum standard but that’s where it’s up to professional associations such as AusIMM, industry bodies, companies, and individuals to overlay that professional standard,” he said. “So, the next layer above regulation is a generally accepted industry-wide standard that might be something pulled together through collaboration.

“At the top of the chain is an individual with morals and if they have that structure underneath them to help guide their behaviours, we will have come a long way.”

Chen said the responsibility to ensure all workers “get home safely” was increasingly a shared duty.

“It’s not just the people that work on the site, it’s not just the manager of the mine site, it’s everybody right up to and including the board and chairman,” she said. “We are all collectively responsible for the safety of all the people we work with and it needs to be embedded in the corporate culture and in the way the company formulates its strategies, its investment plans, the whole thing.

“It’s one complete package. It’s not a separate area.”

Chen said an individual’s code of ethics sat above professional standards which helps identify the “things we cannot live with and should not live with”.

“When I was at the regulator, we encouraged people to stop looking at it as dobbing someone in,” she said. “If an individual member sees something that’s not quite right there is nothing stopping them having a quiet word to whoever is not doing the right thing.”

Morton-Stephens said mining professionals needed to lead through change, making it simple to report incidents, educate and train staff, and use what worked to reduce physical risks in the psychosocial space.

“To me, a mentally healthy workplace is free of all those hazards and it’s a place where people can thrive,” she said. “It ties into the psychologically safe place where you can be yourself and achieve great things because of it.

“Asking your workforce [to] help identify the hazards, help identify those things that need to change – that’s where you are going to create culture change.

“Get in there and get under the covers and find out what’s actually going on. Don’t pretend nothing is going on in the psychosocial space and you will be surprised at what you find and what change you can make.”

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