The Link Between Psychological Safety and Physical Safety in Mining

Mining jobs–especially roles that are in site operations–are frequently cited as having some of the highest physical risk profiles of any job. Despite the constantly evolving precautions that are put in place to protect the physical safety of miners, an often-overlooked aspect of the industry is the importance of also prioritizing the psychological safety of those who work in highly hazardous conditions on a daily basis. In this article, we will take you through the importance of recognizing the implications of not taking psychological safety into account, as well as offer you some tools to help you provide a safe workplace that appeals to current and future employees.

But first, let’s uncover what dependencies that psychological safety, mental health and physical safety have on each other.

According to the Australian Mine Safety Journal, “For the mining industry alone it has been estimated that poor mental health will cost between $320 million to $400 million per year or around $300,000 to $400,000 for an average mine of 170 staff.” (AMSJ, October 8, 2014).  Use that math to apply to a larger mining company that operates several operations globally, and one can see instantly how the mental health of their employees can hit the bottom line in a dramatic way.  These costs take into account lost time due to absenteeism, diminished work effectiveness, lower employee engagement and ineffective communication.   Combining any of these elements–employees who are absent or disengaged, not communicating with each other, or not following procedures, and you end up with a recipe for disaster when it comes to safety issues on the work site.

The impact of physical safety incidents on an organization’s ESG (environmental, social and governance) score can also be significant.  In an October 2020 T. Rowe Price publication, they affirm that safety incidents can have long-lasting effects on a mining company’s reputation, credibility and ultimately, viability as an investment, “That’s because authorities have the power to place a company into state curatorship or even revoke a company’s mining license in a worst-case scenario.” (Visser, W., “Why ESG is Integral to Analysis of Mining Companies,” October 2020).

Unfortunately, these impacts above don’t include the hidden costs of increased employee attrition, decreased employment brand quality, under-reported medical issues and lack of employee pride in their employer.   Bottom line:  If you are looking for employees within the next 5 years, now is the time to focus on psychological safety. Mining.com reported in February 2020 that there will be more than 79,000 jobs available to be filled in Canadian mining organizations within the next decade, and the likely candidates–Gen Z employees–demand respect, support and open communication in the workplace.

“Competition for skilled workers within the Canadian mining industry is already fierce, and with companies in other countries also actively recruiting Canadian graduates and workers, it creates a significant skills gap in the sector.”  (Mining.com February 7, 2020)

And getting this talent will not be easy. The 2020 Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR) National Employer Labour Market Survey asked Canadian mining companies to identify the biggest challenges they anticipate in meeting their workforce requirements in the coming years. Not surprisingly, 91% stated one of their biggest challenges will be finding, attracting, and hiring qualified or skilled workers.

So, what does psychological safety have to do with attracting and keeping new talent in mining?

According to Don Duval is the CEO of Norcat, a not-for-profit technology and innovation centre based in Sudbury, Ontario, “One of the most important success factors in retaining quality employees is ensuring they have a respectful and meaningful relationship with their supervisor. To accomplish this, it is imperative that supervisors not only have the technical skills and credentials to do their job effectively, but also understand how to engage, empathize with, and lead their subordinates to do their jobs efficiently, productively, and safely.”

So, let us ask the question: “How does an organization build a culture of Psychological Safety when their leaders are still managing their people with archaic methods of fear-mongering, exploitation, paternalism and telling versus showing?”

Drawing on the definition of psychological safety in the workplace provided by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, Psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”  Refinery has added an additional context to this definition: (Based on the work of Timothy R. Clark, Author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety):

Psychological safety is a condition in which human beings feel:

  • Included;
  • Safe to learn;
  • Safe to contribute; and
  • Safe to challenge the status quo – including the right to not engage without the need to explain.

Refinery’s goal is to create the conditions that allow Level 4 to thrive.  But organizations cannot expect a Level 4 culture of psychological safety if they have leaders who are reluctant to give their employees the basics of feeling included, having an environment that is safe to learn and make mistakes, and safe to make proactive contributions without fear of retribution.

Leveraging the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety https://www.leaderfactor.com/4-stages-of-psychological-safety

In the model presented here, we can see that without a solid balance of Permission and Respect, psychological safety cannot exist.  And, if the organizational culture lacks this balance, it can show up in varying degrees of either Paternalism or Exploitation—both of which can be dangerous in an environment where seemingly small mistakes can result in injury or death.

Source:  www.leaderfactor.com

Case Study:  Production At All Costs

Through work that Refinery did with a mining client, they concluded that front-line leaders at one of their underground sites were being reprimanded for following safety protocols with their team members because it was interfering with the speed of extraction.  And even though the visible queues of a safety program were evident throughout the site, (posters in the break rooms and common areas) the message from the leaders was clear:  production above safety.  Operators and front-level leaders feared losing their jobs or being publicly reprimanded if they pushed back.  As a result, the site’s LTIFR (Lost Time Incident Frequency Rate)* was the highest among all of the operating mines in the company in 2018, when Refinery started working with this client.

Based on Refinery’s discovery findings in the mine site, they designed and delivered a three-part strategic intervention program that tackled head-on the issues that were prohibiting a safe working environment for the site employees:

Part 1: Working with Upper Management at the site, Refinery:

  • Defined and clarified leader capabilities and standards of behaviour that were required to create a safe working environment
  • Provided individual leader development (coaching) for each member of the Upper Management team on site
  • Developed the Upper Management team through experiential learning to become a high performing, aligned team that understood their role in creating a safe work environment for their employees
  • Created an environment of safe practice that allowed for collaboration and trust among different leadership levels at the mine site


Part 2:  Working with Mid-Level Management at the site, Refinery:

  • Focused on specific gaps between current behaviours and expected behaviours
  • Defined and evaluated leader’s behaviours that clearly demonstrated abuse of authority and fear-mongering
  • Worked with leaders to develop their own action plans to improve their leadership behaviours


Part 3:  Working with Front-Line Managers at the site, Refinery:

  • Focused on the basics of becoming effective leaders, supported with one-on-one coaching
  • Established essential practices to allow leaders to test and apply their new skills in a safe environment


Within 4 months after initiating the program, Refinery’s client noticed the following changes in their site culture:

  • Each member of the Upper-Management team had openly identified the capabilities that they needed to develop to improve their own leadership (and began acting on them)
  • Agreements were put in place among the leader that identified the behaviors that were no longer consistent with a culture of safety
  • Partnerships and collaborations among leaders of different levels were established
  • Breakdowns about power abuse and behaviours that risked safety declined rapidly as leaders were held accountable by their peers for their behaviours
  • Front-line leaders took accountability for their relationships with their own bosses and held them accountable (with backing from Upper Management) for behaviours that were putting their personal safety at risk—both physically and psychologically.


Moving Toward a Culture of Safety

Of course, changing a culture of psychological and physical risk into one of safety takes more than a few months, even with the best intentions.  Refinery has found over the past 20 years of working with mining organizations that providing training alone to fix an embedded problem like safety isn’t sustainable or effective, particularly when you are working with leaders who are working in physically challenging environments like mines.

How can Refinery help you?  Well, it was evident with the previously mentioned client that respect and meaningful relationships among the mine site’s front-line operators and their supervisors was far from respectful.  In fact, based on Refinery’s consultant’s interviews with employees there, employees (and their bosses) felt a continuous message of production over safety. Minor safety incidents went unreported, or at worst, punished rather than examined. As well, the leadership of the mine perpetuated this environment of fear and secrecy through their own messaging and behaviours.

The bottom line is that these changes begin with the leaders. Changing the culture of psychological and physical risk into one of safety takes more than a few months, even with the best of intentions. For over 20 years, Refinery has worked with mining organizations to improve the work culture and conditions to protect all aspects of worker’s health and create open lines of communication to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

*LTIFR= Number of lost time injuries in the reporting period X 1,000,000/Total employee hours worked in the period

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