Safety in Mining Part 1- Susan we have a problem

“Susan, we have a problem at our Lost Wolf Mine Site*.  Despite the fact that we implemented an intensive safety program last year, we continue to see a rise in critical safety incidents and fatalities.  Can you help us?”

This request was not one that we commonly receive.  I thought at first, Refinery doesn’t really do safety training, or even safety assessments—if that’s what the client is asking for.  It turns out, safety training wasn’t what they needed at all.

During this initial conversation with the client, we agreed that the right approach was to send a team of our consultants down to the site to observe what was going on at ground-level (or in this particular case, below ground level.)  Our team would observe team meetings in the mine, interview front-line supervisors as well as mid-level managers and the senior leadership team members to see if they could assess what was happening to cause these increasingly critical safety incidents to occur.

The outcomes of this “discovery” process were perplexing.  Our consultants found that every one of the employees and managers at the site who they interviewed could repeat their safety protocols verbatim.  Posters promoting safety guidelines were visible around the site, and safety briefings were happening in the team meetings that they observed.  So, what was going on?  Digging deeper into their confidential interviews with the front-line workers and supervisors, our consultants found a disturbing reality.  There was a culture of fear in the leadership ranks at the site, and despite all of the visible reminders of safety protocols, the message was clear: “Production before safety.”

This message, it turns out, was originating from the top leadership, as they were pressing their mid-level managers to increase production in order to meet their commitments to Corporate.   Words like anger, frustration, fear-mongering and concealment of facts were used to describe the conditions that this mine was working under.  In short, it was a recipe for disaster from a safety perspective.

We knew that the physical safety issues that were occurring were a result of something much deeper—a lack of psychological safety.  Psychological safety–the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes—is many times the predicator for unsafe working conditions in mines.

According to the Minerals Council of Australia, “Historically, efforts were directed toward the identification and mitigation of safety risk, and the promotion of workplace culture that aims to protect the physical welfare of the individual and their workmates. Over the past few years there has been a widening of this focus to include the wellbeing and mental health of those working in our industry. There is now a strong body of evidence that attention to mental health in industry can bring substantial benefits.”  (Blueprint for Mental Health and Wellbeing, Minerals Council of Australia, 2014)

So, why are the bulk of global mining organizations continuing to focus solely on the physical aspects of safety in their operations, and downplaying the impact of psychological safety?  We’ll dig deeper into that in my next blog.  Meanwhile, I’d like to hear your thoughts about this topic.

Do you think that psychological safety in mining operations should be given the same importance as physical safety?

Stay safe. Stay well.  Stay connected.

*The name of this mine has been changed to protect the privacy of the client.


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