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Published: 17th Dec 2013

Mining is big business in Africa. More than 24% of total economic growth in the African economy between 2000 and 2008 is attributable to the mining industry, and this growth is continuing to accelerate (Berman, 2013).

Africa’s attractiveness to overseas mining operators is increasing as resource-rich countries stabilise politically and financially. This commercial interest represents a significant opportunity for Africa to improve the standard of living for millions of its citizens, and importantly, take great strides in advancing workplace health and safety.

Mining is one of the most hazardous occupations (Khanzode, Maiti, Ray & Tewari, 2010; Saleh & Cummings, 2011). In developing countries, hundreds of workers continue to be hurt and killed in mining-related incidents each year (e.g. Paul & Maiti, 2008; Paul, 2009). Indeed, in Africa, where national safety regulation can be absent, under resourced, or lackluster in its implementation and enforcement (Katula, 2013; Machida, 2013), injury rates are much higher than those in developed countries such as Australia and the United States (Michelo, Bratveir & Moen, 2009). For example, fatality rates in South African platinum mines are nearly double the global average (Lim, Murray, Dowseswell, Glynn & Sonnenberg, 2011).

Fortunately, mining-related injuries and fatalities in most African countries have started to decline (Chamber of Mines, 2013). These recent gains in workplace safety have been made possible by growing pressure on African governments to adopt resolutions and conventions put forth by bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). There is also a growing recognition among African mining companies around the economic benefits of investment in safety: financial return on OHS investments is more than twice the initial investment, which means for every safety dollar spent, a company stands to double its money in the form of improved production, reduced downtime, and decreased insurance premiums (ISSA, 2011).

Despite this progress, there remain significant challenges to occupational safety in Africa – particularly at the company level. Nationally harmonised OHS legislation and fully staffed and resourced government regulators remain frustratingly out of reach; for example, in Uganda there are fewer than 40 safety inspectors to enforce standards across the entire country (Katula, 2013).

Legislation, regulation, and technology can only go so far towards improving safety without investment in people. Tragic events such as those that occurred in Marikana, South Africa, where 44 people died during protests against mine management, highlight the broader social, cultural, and occupational issues that mining organisations must address to advance workplace safety.

Indeed, the Chamber of Mines’ 2013 annual report explicitly acknowledged these broader issues and called for increased corporate responsibility from mining companies to improve working conditions, invest in local communities, and more effectively manage workforce diversity.

Notwithstanding the important structural and institutional changes that must take place for long term success, there are many tangible things that mining companies can do right now to carry on the positive momentum already underway in OHS. The aforementioned issues highlight the multifaceted nature of workplace safety in Africa and what organisations can do to improve it; specifically, mining companies must consider general organisational and social issues such as workforce participation, national culture, and education if positive and sustained OHS improvements are to be realised (Katula, 2013; Olowogbon & Akinwande, 2013).

Problems such as poor quality communication, precarious or insecure employment arrangements, cultural diversity due to migrant workers, non-participative management styles, and low wages and education levels, are well established predictors of occupational safety outcomes within the African mining industry. Fortunately, through investment in people many of these barriers can be eliminated.

Workforce training and development has been long recognised as an effective safety strategy in many Western countries, with OHS success achieved by recognising the important roles played by thinking and behaviour in workplace incidents (Hickman & Gellar, 2003; Krause, Seymour & Sloat, 1999). Under this view, the extent to which mining organisations can not only implement innovative technological solutions that reduce risk, but also understand psychological principles and how they play out in terms of employee motivation and behaviour, determines their ability to achieve exemplary safety performance.

In practise, this means investing in employees through initiatives such as safety training, coaching, mentoring, reward and recognition programmes, and fair and just performance management systems. Further, mining companies have achieved much OHS success by fostering a positive and strong safety culture across their workforce – essentially the product of shared ways of thinking about and behaving toward safety in an organisation. Through person-focused interventions like these, mining companies stand to fully realise the benefits of technological innovations such as automation and mechanisation.

Indeed, as new technological mining innovations come into play, a host of new OHS challenges will surface that are increasingly associated with psychological factors rather than the traditional physical challenges that African mines are well acquainted with – mental fatigue, tiredness/reduced alertness, distraction, sensory overload, poor quality communication and team conflict, to name but a few.

In addition, African mining companies are faced with a particular person-related challenge – or opportunity, depending on your perspective. Africa is an incredibly diverse region – the sub-Sahara region alone contains 43% of the world’s distinct ethnic groups, with marked cultural variation in language, customs, beliefs, and values (Fearon, 2003). This regional diversity translates into workforce diversity at national and company levels.

Indeed, African countries where mining is well established, such as South Africa, represent significant opportunities to earn a living for millions of impoverished citizens. Consequently, migrant workers make up a significant proportion of the mining workforce (Pule, 2011), which itself carries unique person-related OHS implications.

This is a particularly important issue given mounting evidence that workforce diversity contributes significantly to organisational safety performance. Specifically, studies done in Western companies have shown that migrant workers from culturally-diverse regions generally have higher mortality and injury rates than native employees (Ahonen, Benavides & Behnach, 2007; Vega, Rodriguez & Gruskin, 2009). Given that workforce diversity is a relatively understudied area, yet a common characteristic of the mining workforce in Africa, we focus our attention on this issue.

In this article we describe a four-component framework that organisations can use to guide the planning and development of future OHS initiatives, and following the call made by the Chamber of Mines and the International Labour Organization (ILO), position this framework to target employees through developmental activities such as training and education. This framework consists of the psychological and social factors that are of most relevance to OHS performance and vary according to cultural background:

• Neuroscience – perceiving hazards and assessing risk

• Beliefs and attitudes – ways of thinking and feeling about safety at work

• Knowledge, skills, and experience – safety-specific competencies

• Social context – cultural diversity in social settings, such as interactions between employees

Understanding this framework and applying it in the context of OHS performance is critical to workforce health, productivity, and safety in African mining operations.

Do you see what I see?

Neuroscience is offering unparalleled access to the inner workings of the human mind. As brain imaging technologies continue to advance, so too does our understanding of the physical structures that underlie thinking and behaviour. Recently, fascinating discoveries have been made that point to important implications for OHS management (Strauch, 2010).

Specifically, neuroscientists have uncovered fundamental differences in cognitive processes such as perception and decision making between cultural groups, which have been linked to performance issues within multicultural teams such as increased errors and reduced safety. In other words, there is evidence to suggest that people from different cultures are essentially ‘wired’ differently.

This means that we cannot assume that what one person perceives will also be seen by someone from another culture, nor that what one person judges as risky or hazardous will also be assessed in the same manner. As a result, the behaviour that is chosen in response to a given situation can sometimes be quite different to what ‘should’ have been done according to procedures and training, and through no volition of the individual involved.

Applied to OHS management in Africa, these early findings are food for thought. If national culture influences the reality that we see, what does this mean in practise? At a minimum, accident investigators need to dig much deeper than the superficial actions that contributed to the outcome. How can an employee be held personally liable if he or she simply did not recognise that the situation was hazardous? How will this knowledge influence the types of recommendations to improve OHS that the inspector makes?

Further, OHS training needs to keep pace with neuroscience research so that cultural limitations in key safety tasks such as hazard identification and risk assessment can be strategically developed and enhanced. Moreover, additional safety signage and a strong team safety culture, such as active care behaviours towards co-workers, would probably prove beneficial. In sum, African mining companies should pay close attention to emerging neuroscience research and build partnerships with scientists to better manage OHS across a culturally diverse workforce.

Workplace safety – horses for courses?

According to many theories of culture, the way a person thinks is influenced by his/her cultural upbringing. From this perspective, beliefs and attitudes are highly malleable during our early years and hence are borne out of our cultural context. Specifically, experiences during childhood and adolescence, and social interactions with people in our community help us to develop ways of making sense out of a seemingly chaotic world (Klein & Steele-Johnson, 2007). Both a blessing and a hindrance, these thinking patterns work well when other people share a similar mental framework, but can cause conflict and reduced performance when the model differs between people.

One particular type of safety related belief – safety locus of control – is an important predictor of workplace incidents such as injuries (Christian et al, 2009). Put simply, a person can either possess an ‘internal’ or an ‘external’ locus of control. An internal locus is desirable from a safety perspective because the person is more likely to see a connection between their actions and the results or outcomes that they achieve. This means that he/she may be more likely to invest time and effort in safety training (Krauss, Casey, & Chen, 2013) and wear personal protective equipment (Lajunen & Rasanen, 2004), among other important safety behaviours.

Crucially, there is some evidence to suggest that locus of control varies according to culture, with an internal locus more likely in individualistic cultures, and less likely in collectivist cultures (Mueller & Thomas, 2001). In Africa, where collectivist cultures are more prevalent (Hofstede, 2001), differences in safety performance may be influenced by beliefs such as locus of control. Cognitive-based safety training, which specifically targets safety attitudes and beliefs, would be beneficial insofar as supplementing and extending existing technical safety training, and acting to increase employees’ internal safety locus of control.

What you don’t know can hurt you

In addition, an employee’s cultural background predicts the nature of his/her past workplace experiences. Specifically, safety may not be considered as a high priority by some cultures due to less developed approaches to safety management, production-focused objectives, and/or a lack of resources to invest in safety initiatives in their home countries (Mearns & Yule, 2009).

At an employee level, these experiences manifest as reduced safety knowledge and skills, which are related to safety behaviour and in turn, injuries (Christian et al, 2009). Further, if an employee has previously worked for a company where safety was lax or ignored, this experience could have detrimental effects on safety performance in his/her next job if the organisation has higher expectations and standards.

Applied to African mining operations, companies are going to need to consider more stringent practises for recruiting and training staff, if these differences in knowledge and skills are to be eliminated. Also, as the technological sophistication of African mines increases (Hahn, 2011), the reliance on workers’ competencies will jump dramatically, putting strain on underdeveloped or worryingly, non-existent training systems. Given the call for increased corporate responsibility and investment in local communities, African companies can no longer afford to simply ‘get by’ when it comes to employee training and development.

Leadership for exemplary safety

Most research on national culture and workplace safety has drawn on the seminal research of Hofstede (1980, 2001).

Hofstede proposed that culture is underpinned by five distinct values,which influence not only personal but also work related ways of thinking and behaviour. Research suggests that one type of value or dimension of national culture – power distance – has been shown to predict employee injuries (Starren et al, 2013).

Power distance refers to cultural values that promote compliance and deference to authority. Higher power distance is associated with a higher risk of an adverse safety event because employees may be less open in their safety communication and more compliant with directions to violate safety procedures, particularly when leaders are involved (Lu, Lai, Lun & Cheng, 2012).

According to Hofstede (2001), power distance is high among African and Middle Eastern cultures, and low among Western cultures. These differences could play out as difficulties in communicating openly with leaders about safety, e.g. hazards, incidents, and performance related issues, (e.g., hazards, incidents, and mistakes/errors) as well as increased conflict and poor quality safety communication within and between teams.

Consequently, African mining organisations should not limit their investment in people to frontline workers. Leaders at all levels, and particularly at the team leader or supervisor level, would benefit from initiatives such as safety leadership training and coaching. With decreasing numbers of expatriates filling leadership roles, and increasing numbers of African employees being promoted, quality, productivity, and safety can only be achieved if specific leadership competencies in these domains are enhanced.

Ubuntu – OHS evolution in African mining

Workforce diversity doesn’t need to result in worse safety outcomes. Although team performance may initially be lower than if such diversity was minimised, studies have shown that over time (and faster if teams are managed well), adverse events such as errors and safety that stem from diversity-related social friction gradually reduce and disappear (Thomas, 1999).

Indeed, teams can adapt to cultural diversity by acknowledging and confronting differences head-on – basically, ‘de-centring’ or detaching oneself from native cultural values and increasing awareness about how co-workers’ culture influences thinking and behaviour in team settings (Klein & Steele-Johnson, 2007).

Also, competency frameworks such as Sentis’ Safety Citizens and Safety Leadership models describe the types of behaviour and thinking patterns that produce excellence in safety, and are useful tools to help African mines to develop the next generation of OHS training.

Africa stands poised on the precipice of an OHS revolution. Elements across all levels of OHS are starting to align: multinational OHS frameworks and harmonised legislation; national regulation and enforcement; company-level investment in OHS; and finally, a workforce that is ready and crying out for increased investment in training and development.

The next few years will prove critical in realising many of these promising advancements, and importantly, there will also be many opportunities to carry out vital research in OHS in the understudied and poorly understood African context.

Although there is a rich and beautiful diversity in cultural values and practises across Africa, one concept of particular relevance to the OHS revolution is relatively consistent. ‘Ubuntu’ – itself a concept with marked differences in meaning between African cultures – is basically a moral ‘idea’ or philosophy that is hallmarked by a consideration of your fellow men and women; embracing the complexity of diversity; forgiving and reconciling; striving collectively toward the success of the community (Gade, 2012).

It seems that the African mining industry, and indeed, the broader African workforce will need to incorporate many of these moral elements into OHS management if positive and lasting improvements are to be made. Without concepts such as Ubuntu to guide and bind together technical and procedural systems, safety in Africa will continue to remain out of reach. Moreover, the opportunity to make tremendous inroads to OHS that currently presents itself via the mining industry will be lost. Given the urgency that OHS change is required in Africa, failure is not an option.

Published: 17th Dec 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Dr Tristan W Casey, Mathew Bowen and Anthony Gibbs