Recently the mining industry experienced an increase in the number of fatalities. Immediate action has been taken by other mining companies to prevent similar incidents. Communiques were sent out, renewed focus has been placed on the root causes of the incident, but in all of it the central theme of risk taking behavior became evident. In fact, isn’t it also the primary cause for most, if not nearly all accidents, irrespective the industry?
Why is it so tempting for people to take risks, knowing that it may have dire consequences? It would be naïve to blame it only on human nature. For the purpose of this newsletter I want to accept the argument that all, or at least the majority thereof is caused, the end product of a series of events that preceded behavior. If I got away with risk taking behavior once or twice without experiencing any serious consequences, my risk taking behavior will soon become my behavioral pattern. The mining industry is known for its many hazards and for each of it we have developed controls by means of a whole series of control measures.
Every member of the tripartite alliance have their own areas of responsibilities and eventually accountability. The Department of Minerals (DMR) ensures that all elements of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) is adhered to, employers will have files filled up with legal appointments, the shafts designed and equipped to ensure that safety of our people, risk assessments are conducted and neatly filed, all employees are adequately trained and found competent. Employers have lists containing the do’s and the don’ts and checklists upon checklists. Employees and their respective representative bodies participate in decision-making processes and structures, well trained in the implications of Sections 22 and 23 of the MHSA. And when visit a workplace; it still happens that employees take risks. Will we ever reach a point where employees do the right thing by adhering to risk avoiding behavior?
From this we can deduct that our industry manages our safety through the application of numerous systems. We have a system for equipping our shafts, a system for appointing managers, identifying hazards and assessing risks, training employees, managing our ventilation, the regular maintenance of our machines, employing Perimeter Detection Systems (PDS) to warm employees of trackless moving machines in their vicinity. The list becomes longer and longer every year.
Have we entered the phase in our safety management where we have become so reliant on systems that we unknowingly abdicated our own responsibilities? Is the existence of common knowledge no longer so common anymore? Obviously, we can not move back to the era of no early warning devices, etc. but it may be a good time to consider the inherent risks of systems.
It may be time well spent if we ask ourselves whether we entertain the concept of consequential thinking well enough in our organizations. We train people extensively on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their occupations, but do we ever sit down with them explaining ‘why’ they must adhered to certain standards? Two underlying reasons for rule non-compliance come to mind: the rule or standard is regarded as largely irrelevant because people do not understand the reasoning behind it, or in the second instance the control is totally impractical and is more likely to cause accidents than preventing it. If a standard or rule is not adding value to enhancing safe execution of tasks, it will not be followed, therefore the non-compliance behavior is the simply caused by organizations themselves.
In many cities it has become the norm to install pizza-like traffic circles in crossings to enhance the flow of traffic. In the area where I live, the positioning of these traffic circles are not placed in the middle of the crossing due to certain space considerations but often more to one of the sides. The end-result is so obvious – motorists will take the shortest route if there are no other vehicles close by. The purpose of the traffic control measure has now become the cause of serious non-compliances.
Deducting from the aforementioned and moving back to the mining industry per se, ask yourself the some of the following questions:
- Do you really need all the systems that you currently employ, and of so, do you maintain them? Were some of these systems not necessary as a result of specific work methods or equipment used that are no longer in use?
- How do your employees see your systems: as an aid to assist them in doing their work safely and productively, or simply as a hurdle that does not add real value?
- Do you maintain your systems well enough or did it become more of a hazard than a control?
- If you review the cascading effect of your controls and systems, starting with the Codes of Practice (COP’s), the risks assessments conducted, standard operating procedures, your training material, checklists, planned task observations (PTO’s), do you see a central theme or a disarray of messages?
- Are you sure that you have systems that are aligned to ensure zero harm, or is it quite possible that your safety management shows symptoms of dysfunction?
In conclusion, if you agree with the statement that behavior is caused, you will also give consideration to the argument that the systems we employ may play a role in the end-product we find, one of which is risk taking behavior that often result in an incident. It may be worth your while to take one step back and review your whole system in a critical manner and ask yourself if your system is not delivering the exact results you don’t want.