Created with Snap
  • Latest Issue
  • Trending
  • Press
  • Videos
  • Events

A Framework for Safety in Mining

Published: 10th Aug 2011

More than a year after the devastating tragedy at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia, USA, where 29 miners perished and the dramatic rescue of 33 miners from the Copiapó mining accident in Chile, mining organisations around the globe continue to be faced with serious questions about their safety practices.

They may be unwelcome to some, but these questions should be universally embraced as their answers provide an opportunity to advance significant safety performance improvements industry wide.

But rather than being reactive to the inquiries of industry associations and various governing bodies, mining organisations need to be proactive in looking inward and be motivated to seek answers to a host of questions, a few of which are:

• How can we be assured that this won’t happen to us?

• Do we have an organisational culture that truly supports safety?

• Do our miners have all the equipment and tools they need to perform their jobs safely?

• Despite displaying signs like ‘safety is our number one priority’ on front gates, do we truly make safety the number one priority?

In the wake of compelling events like those noted above, many mining organisations remain in that reactive state and question whether operation without injury can actually be a reality. Fortunately though, examples of proactive examination, progressive leadership, and beliefs that a zero injury workplace is achievable do exist in the mining industry. They serve as beacons for the direction the mining industry as a whole needs to move in to assure the safety of its workers and operational excellence generally. This article will examine that direction and identify the characteristics that organisations must focus on.

Questions - and their answers - compel action

Consider the following quote related to employee equipment and action (or inaction) from a January 27, 2011 fatality investigation report:

“The investigation revealed that only a couple of persons on the 16 panel section had hand-held radios,?and there was never an attempt to locate (the victim) by this method.”

To be sure, this is but a slice of the many variables in play for this particular incident, but this statement alone raises questions that should be examined, a few of which include:

• Why did only two people on this section have hand-held radios?

• Why was this equipment not used in trying to ascertain the whereabouts of this particular worker?

• And perhaps most importantly, was there something systemically wrong or misaligned in the company’s organisational culture that enabled a sequence of events where a young man perished?

It must be said that any and all of the personal protective equipment (whether communications devices or protective clothing) that might have been available to this miner may not have prevented his death in this instance.

We do know, however, that personal protective equipment (PPE) is a necessity to reduce employee exposure to hazards when engineering and administrative controls are not feasible or effective in reducing these exposures to acceptable levels.

Though most are familiar with and understand this concept, it is helpful to review the Hierarchy of Controls (below) as it continuously bears examination and application to the work elements of our operations.

The hierarchy of health and safety controls

Smalliest likelihood of behavioural variability

1 Elimination or substitution 2 Engineering controls 3 Warnings 4 Administrative controls 5 Personal protective equipment

Greatest likelihood of behavioural variability

The aspect of behavioural variability in the Hierarchy of Controls refers to the potential for different behaviours and outcomes to occur as a result of the control itself. As safety controls progress down the hierarchy, the likelihood of behavioural variability increases (e.g. increased chance that behaviours which foster undesired outcomes can occur).

Understanding the hierarchy of controls and asking the types of questions noted previously is imperative. Such queries should always be made in the spirit of continuous improvement and not for the purpose of trying to catch someone in a mistake.

This is vital to an organisation’s ability to build employee trust and engagement in the safety improvement process. When this is done successfully and consistently, employees throughout the organisation embrace making it a part of everyday activity to look for new questions and answers to improve the safety of the workplace. They ‘see and feel’ that the organisation values their wellbeing.

So what does it take to build this type of organisational culture where employees are actively engaged?

First things first - you have to believe that zero harm is possible

Pockets of belief that operation without injury is not achievable persist in the minds of an alarming number of mining professionals. In espousing this belief, these leaders implicitly accept that it is okay for some people to get hurt, that a certain amount of injuries ‘are accidents that can’t really be prevented’. Clearly this is not a view that will carry the mining industry to the heights of safety performance it aspires to.

A common, frustrated refrain of these leaders is that “we provide our workers all the latest in PPE and have sound policies and procedures, yet people still get hurt on the job.” In a mining environment, effective personal protective equipment is vital, but as we outlined above it is only one part of the puzzle.

Views like this produce a tendency to shift disproportionate blame for injuries onto worker behaviour, e.g. “they weren’t following procedures or using their PPE correctly.” What many organisations must better understand is how leadership focus and organisational culture impact on the ability of workers to perform their jobs safely.

At the other end of the spectrum are the views of forward thinking, progressive leaders and the employees who drive their organisations, who understand that operation without injury is indeed possible and that any result short of that measure is unacceptable.

They eliminate hazards wherever feasible, make good use of administrative and engineering controls, and understand the role of PPE in protecting their employees from injury. But above all, they believe that they can achieve zero harm to workers and hold that priority above all others.

Tony Bumbico, Vice President of Safety for Arch Coal, Inc, articulated this belief and commitment well in his May 4, 2011 testimony to the United States

House of Representatives Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. He said that despite “achieving the lowest injury rates among our nation’s diversified coal producers” they “have more to accomplish and will not be satisfied until we reach our goal of zero injuries.”

To understand how mining organisations like Arch and others achieved this kind of culture, it’s helpful to first align on the fundamental differences between ‘climate’ and ‘culture’.

Understanding the importance of climate and culture

The impact of climate and culture on safety performance outcomes is difficult to overstate. Intuitively we know that the processes and behaviours which policies, stated guidelines, and recommendations call for are often quite different from the actions and behaviours that ultimately occur in the course of daily activities. Consider this scenario:

Jim is a rookie on the third shift excavation crew. He’s barely into his third week and notices that Gary, a senior member of the crew, doesn’t wear his safety glasses when performing routine preventative maintenance, despite a policy that says he should. Jim continues to wear his safety glasses nonetheless until he sees the group’s manager not wearing his either while performing similar checks. Gary surmises that they ‘must know better than him’, and that this must be an ‘optional’ policy. As a result he determines that he too will probably be okay to leave them off next time.

In this instance the message to Jim and other employees is that the unwritten rules demonstrated by others - especially those senior in capacity - hold precedent over stated policy. Left unchecked, these influences - climate - over time become the norm - culture.

Climate can be thought of as “the prevailing influences on a particular area of functioning (such as safety) at a particular time.” (Krause, 2005). Climate can change rapidly, whether it is the impetus of an incident or incidents that bring about new or renewed focus on safety, or new leadership bringing about a shift with changes or additions to policies and procedures. Climate is more immediate than culture, and reflects the attention of the organisation’s leaders.

It is important to note that climate can be fleeting. Today’s new rules can easily become next month’s forgotten about policies if attention to them wanes. This month’s emphasis on safety by all senior leaders may bring about desired activity and focus, but this can just as easily vanish if these same leaders lessen their emphasis on the importance of safety to the organisation and move their focus elsewhere, e.g. production.

The key is to create the right safety climate and then sustain it over time so that it becomes an embedded part of the organisation’s culture, which we’ll explore next.

Cultural variables

Culture refers to ‘the way things get done around here’. It is the spoken and unspoken norms that drive work practices, the written and unwritten rules that guide employee behaviours, and the consistent actions and behaviours of leaders that influence the workforce. It takes longer to establish and longer to change than climate and its effects are seen in numerous ways, both positive and negative.

Successful cultures are ones that demonstrate organisational commitment tangibly, openness to change, and ethical decision making. The employees working in these cultures believe that their leaders ‘get it’ when it comes to safety, and to what they are going through at all levels of the organisation. These beliefs are then positively reflected by high job satisfaction, solid corporate citizenship, and high performance from both safety and operational perspectives.

Conversely, those organisations with dysfunctional cultures see a number of outcomes that work completely to the detriment of safety performance improvement. Here, unspoken, unmentionable agreements may inequitably guide the way things get done. Employees will typically feel that leaders have no idea or appreciation for what they are facing on the frontlines. Values for safety and the lines that guide ethical decision making become blurred.

Clearly this type of culture is undesirable and can impact not only on safety, but operations generally.

Characteristics that define organisational culture

Our work and focused research with a number of high performing organisations has shown us that nine attributes of an organisation’s culture are predictive of the organisation’s safety performance outcomes. These attributes fall into one of three categories (not in priority order) which are: 1) Organisational factors, 2) Team factors, and 3) Safety-specific factors.

Organisational factors include things such as Procedural Justice, which is the perceived fairness or a supervisor’s decision making process, and Management Credibility - the consistency of what management says versus what they do.

Team factors include items such as Work-Group Relations - how well co-workers get along with one another.

Safety-specific factors include components such as Organisational Value for Safety - the extent to which employees perceive the organisation has a commitment to safety performance improvement - and Upward Communication, which is the extent to which information flows freely upward throughout the organisation.

Let’s examine Upward Communication more closely for a moment to see how it can affect actions and ultimately an organisation’s effectiveness in reducing exposures to injury.

Terry has been working at the mine now for about six months. He frequently has to stop his work to adjust his hardhat band and notices that several in his crew have to do the same thing. He asks his manager what he thinks about sending in a recommendation that they upgrade to a non-slip variety, because he believes the time saved will more than pay for itself. His manager tells him to “get some tape and worry more about the production.” The manager adds “besides, I brought this up to the senior leaders a couple times before and they thought I was making a big deal out of a small issue.”

It is clear that in a culture like the one above, employees like Terry will be hesitant to send recommendations and safety concerns up the chain of command. Addressing the individual components of an organisation’s culture is a requirement to bring about significant improvements in safety performance outcomes.

Culture characteristics that predict safety outcomes

Procedural Justice - The extent to which the individual worker perceives fairness in the supervisor’s decision making process.

Leader-Member Exchange - The relationship the employee has with his or her supervisor. In particular, this scale measures the employee’s level of confidence that his supervisor will go to bat for him and look out for his interests and vice versa.

Management Credibility -

A perception of the employee that what management says is consistent with what management does.

Perceived Organisational Support - The perception of the employee that the organisation cares about, values, and supports him.

Workgroup Relations - The perception the employee has of his relationship with co-workers. How well do they get along? To what degree do they treat each other with respect, listen to each other’s ideas, help one another out, and follow through on commitments made?

Teamwork - The extent to which the employee perceives that working with team members is an effective way to get things done.

Safety Climate - The safety climate scale measures the extent to which the employee perceives the organisation has a value for safety performance improvement.

Upward Communication - The extent to which communication about safety flows freely upward through the organisation.

Approaching Others - The extent to which employees feel free to speak to one another about safety concerns.

Many mining organisations have come to the realisation that their culture is not where it needs to be for significant safety performance to become a reality.

This is an important initial step. They know something must be done and are committed to providing the necessary resources to drive improvement.

However, the challenge and quandary that many leaders then face rest in where they should start, and just what those resources are that they must be ready to commit.

How do they determine the areas that need the most focus and prioritise orders of attention as their organisation works to build an organisational culture that drives safety excellence?

Knowing where you are and where you want to go

When planning a journey, one must first establish a starting point. Thus, before mining organisations can reach their destination of safety performance improvement and a culture that supports its sustainability, they need to know where they are with respect to the cultural attributes denoted above.

A comprehensive assessment of organisational culture and functioning is a sound starting place, because it can be measured and understood, relies on actions versus words, and can transform an organisation from a lethargic and pessimistic view to a ‘can do’ attitude. But assessing and addressing culture is not easy, and requires:

• Deliberate and structured analysis of the organisation

• Strong leadership to guide the assessment and communicate its importance to all

• Significant planning to ensure that data collection, analysis, and the resultant actions are given the required resources for effective execution

Fortunately, many organisations have successfully undertaken these assessments and provide us examples of how to carry them out effectively, with best practices to emulate as well as pitfalls to avoid. Executed effectively, they provide a clear picture of present status and illuminate starting points and prioritised areas of focus for reaching new levels of safety performance improvement.

Paired with identifying the right starting points is the equally important step of assuring that senior leaders all subscribe to the important, aforementioned belief that zero harm to all employees is achievable. They must ensure that this vision is shared by all employees at all levels and be prepared to commit the time, energy, and resources to see it through. Not doing so can have a dramatic, negative effect on the organisation, making any future or renewed efforts that much more difficult to be taken seriously and given a chance of success.

Closing thoughts

Many understandably view the current state of safety in the mining industry as a problem. It is helpful and constructive to also characterise this period of time as an opportunity - one that must be taken to dramatically improve the safety of mining workers across the globe.

A framework for safety performance excellence does exist. Applying it to dramatically improve the safety and wellbeing of today’s - and tomorrow’s - workforce can help to ensure that mining accidents and related injuries decline until we reach our steadfast goal of zero harm to all.


Teg Matthews is a Senior Advisor with BST, a global safety consulting firm.

Teg works with senior leaders and leadership teams to design and implement safety change initiatives throughout the Gulf, Middle East, and the UK. Teg is based in United Arab Emirates and can be reached at

Jeff Raymond is a Director for BST based in the United States, who contributes to safety issue awareness and understanding globally. He also partners in developing new innovations and methodologies to support clients around the world in mining and other critical industries. He can be reached at in 1979, BST pioneered the application of behavioural science to safety performance. Today, BST works with organisations to reduce occupational injuries, improve organisational functioning, and develop strong safety leadership.

BST’s clients represent more than 60 countries, 30 languages, and many of the leading organisations in oil and gas, manufacturing, chemical, mining, metals, paper, transportation, consumer products, utilities, healthcare, and other critical industries.

More information about BST is available at

Published: 10th Aug 2011 in Health and Safety Middle East

Share this article with your friends
Teg Matthews and Jeff Raymond