Friday, 3 July 2020
Industry Q&A: Prioritising OH&S During Periods of Growth

Industry Q&A: Prioritising OH&S During Periods of Growth

With 2018 upon us and the mining industry set for a busy and productive year ahead, Austmine caught up with Ian C Dunican, Principal Consultant – Health, Safety & Business Performance with ORBIZ Consulting and Director of Sleep4Performance, to find out how mining companies can keep health and safety as a priority in the demanding months ahead.


Health and safety is always a priority in the mining sector. With the industry moving into an upswing, what do miners and METS companies alike need to be most aware of, in regard to health and safety practices on site?

With an upswing in the mining industry, it often comes with an increase in workload, work hours and an increased urgency to deliver projects ahead of time. Therefore, a great place to start as an organisation is with a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS). An FRMS is a good place to start; whether it is a new operation or a brownfields expansion, it is critical for mine management, to strategically design the work hours for employee safety, and to safeguard their long term health. This may mean redesigning the work schedules (shifts and rosters) to minimise risk and maximise productivity. This can be achieved with the use of biomathematical modelling, data analytics and employee engagement. In addition, employees should take responsibility for looking after their own health, safety and wellbeing, as individual factors can play a significant role in their own safety.

An important consideration is the strategic use of technology as a key component to manage health and safety. The identification, selection and deployment of technology is a key factor. Technology selection should not be limited to the improvement of safety, but should consider effective safeguarding of machinery, improvement in productivity and reduction in cost where possible. Too often when an industry leverages technology for health and safety reasons, there is an assumption that the technology will automatically enable us to work more safely and protect us. In reality, the technology aids us with the identification of high risks (e.g. an early warning system) that can allow the leaders to remove people from high risk areas or tasks, but it is not a silver bullet and should never be solely relied upon as the control method in the approach to risk management.

Similarly, with an increase in automation for production (drilling, load and haul) in the mining industry there is a tendency to believe that we have eliminated health and safety risks to people. Indeed, automation can eliminate or reduce certain types of risk, such as exposure to hazardous conditions, materials, operating machinery, thermal stress and work hours exposure. Mining companies should be aware that this may be a double-edged sword, as the new technology or business operating practice may introduce new risks to employees. For example, when mining companies transition into remote operational centres, we observe an increase in sedentary roles, where health issues such as weight gain, depression and even diabetes are becoming more prevalent. In this situation, work hours are critical, as employees should not be doing the same work hours on site as in an office. Take for example aviation and aerospace who manage this well: in air traffic control their staff rotate ‘on and off’ their operational desks every 2 hours, over their 8-hour shift.

Lastly, we must not forget significant hazards in mining such as vehicles and driving. Our industry involves a lot of time spent traveling to and from work sites on a daily or intermittent basis. An upswing in the mining industry generally brings an increase in road traffic resulting in an increase in vehicle and driving risks. This is mainly due to  an increase in people working at operations, engineering and construction projects in the resources sector. Further significant risks include: thermal stress exposure; working in confined spaces; working at heights and working in and around suspended loads. Sometimes when we go through a downturn in the sector, we lose focus on these high-risk activities, which can then be a real issue when we pick back up with significant projects underway as we have new employees and our existing employees may be lacking current experience in managing such high-risk tasks.  

What role does leadership play in ensuring a zero-harm culture in a company?

For me, based upon my experiences, leadership is key. If you look at the military, you can observe great examples where leadership is critical as safety is paramount, in particular with frontline military operations. If you wish to embed a zero-harm culture in your business, it must start with your leaders, as they create, implement and (hopefully) embody the business and safety culture. If leaders allow small things in health and safety to slip, then bigger problems or mistakes will emerge over time.

There are three levels to implementing a safety culture. The company’s leaders should ensure they define and implement a clear health and safety vision with a strategy that links to the business strategy. Next, consider the systems: are the correct systems in place to support that strategy. Are the systems budgeted for and resourced appropriately to meet the strategy? Examples of systems are; risk management system, fatigue risk management system or a contractor management system. Finally, are there processes within these systems that people can use easily? Are the day-to-day tasks of the workforce being considered with health and safety in mind?

If you wish to invigorate your safety culture, leadership is where it begins, even with poor systems and strategy, leadership can be a short-term fix. However, something I’ve seen in my career working across several industries, is that companies don’t always set up their leaders well with their training for leading health and safety. Training doesn’t just mean sending someone on a course for a few days: it requires having a structured methodology for people in the field, from operator through to superintendent.

How does technology contribute to driving down injury and fatality rates? What technologies have emerged over the last year or two that you view as having a particular impact on the mining sector?

When discussing leading safety-specific technology. The first is the Fatigue Science Readiband™ technology, which is a wrist-worn actigraphy device that predicts the effectiveness and fatigue of a person on shift. This is an excellent device that is used in high risk industry, military and with elite athletes. The second technology is from Seeing Machines, and it measures eye closures and allows operators to identify levels of fatigue. Similarly, other companies have developed important fatigue management technologies such as Smartcap™ and Optalert™. These are all technologies that have the potential to not only save lives, but also to minimise equipment damage and increase productivity for mining companies.

These technologies reflect some of the best that I’ve been exposed to, but there are plenty more technologies available. In addition, health and safety managers should consider productivity, and how technology can benefit the entire business.

When so many incidents occur due to human error, what can companies do to address this? How do you combat issues such as fatigue, stress and mental health?

As a starting point, the mining company should look at their data, such as; safety, productivity and maintenance to investigate if there are any correlations between those measures. If so, conduct root cause analysis to find the point of cause: is it a particular time of day?, a particular workshop? task or equipment? Then you need to consider the wider factors: is it due to equipment reliability, or human error? Has the machine interface been designed correctly?

There is a clear link between fatigue, getting enough sleep, mental health and physical health. If we target any of these for improvement, then we typically improve the others (e.g. if you can work with someone to manage their depression, typically this will impact on the exercise they undertake and how much sleep they get). It’s often very difficult to find a cause and effect, because they’re all interlinked, as proven by many research studies. Humans are not machines!

If you wish to tackle employee health/wellness in your company, you really should start with an expert. Sure, you can find generic information freely available, but an expert in this area can save you time, money and resources by tailor making a program for your organisational needs. As part of these programs, education of your employees on wellness, lifestyle or health is only worth so much and if there is no follow up or systems in place to support them once they have that information. In this situation, spending more money is not automatically the solution – you must focus on avoiding mistakes and wasting money. For example, it makes no sense to target all employees with the same health/wellness program, if you have half your workforce out actively working in the field and half in office, desk-bound roles. Target the high-risk individuals.

In Australia, there are benefits to employee wellness programmes, especially if you have a private health insurance provider for your employees. The insurer can work with you to provide guidance on programs, and if you can prove success rates (e.g. an overall reduction in fatigue in truck drivers), you may receive a reduction in insurance premiums. This has been the case with mining companies in the United States whereby they demonstrated improvement with objective data from their wellness program such as reduction in body weight of their staff, increased aerobic capacity and improved sleep, from this a sizeable reduction in insurance premiums was received that vastly outnumbered the cost of the wellness program. However, the benefits to the company of increasing your employees’ wellness goes well beyond this direct financial incentive, with standing to increase productivity, reduce downtime and reduce incidents. 


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