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Health and safety in the extractive sector

An introductory article covering important information relating to Health and Safety.

The SUMEX sustainability framework describes a number of aspects that we consider as relevant for the sustainable management of the extractive industry.

Amongst these, in the social and societal responsibility area, is “improve workers’ well-being”, which for us in SUMEX also includes “zero harm”. This means that workers should not be harmed at their workplace, neither through an accident (the safety component) nor through long term effects (the health component). In addition, the nature of mineral raw material extraction is such that not only the workers of a mine or quarry can be negatively affected, but also people living in surrounding communities, for example through the breach of a tailings dam (as recent examples in Brazil have shown) or, over the long term, through noise and dust generated by an operation.

Health and safety (H&S) management systems – following the same logic as quality or environmental management systems – aiming at establishing a governance system with systematic processes for the management and continuous improvement of H&S are an important tool in the extractive industry. In addition, the industry also learned from other sectors, i.e. chemicals and aviation, that a H&S culture, as well as people’s behaviour play an important role. Hence, culture change and people-based safety became another addition in the journey towards “zero harm”.

Key reasons for organisations to implement management systems include regulatory and other compliance requirements, the ambition to manage risks and opportunities and improve their performance in a systematic way, and to drive cultural change. Specific reasons for H&S management system implementation range from a visible (both inside and outside the organisation) commitment to employees H&S and their protection, but also include improvements to productivity by reducing occupational injuries and illnesses.

The separation of safety into occupational H&S and process and plant safety allows for a more holistic approach to risk management and harm prevention. As focusing only on occupational H&S while neglecting process safety can lead to circumstances where even companies with excellent health and safety policies could run into major accidents and catastrophes. Therefore, monitoring and managing safety in these two areas is crucial to covering all potential causes for accidents.

This brings us to the three guiding questions of this week.

Guiding questions on Health and Safety

Q1: What are key Health and Safety risks in mining?

The H&S risks arising from mining operations can be broadly classified into four categories, these are listed below with individual examples. You will learn more about key H&S risks in mining throughout this week.

General hazards: Such as human behavior, as there are many ways in which unsafe behavior at the worksite can increase the risk for accidents to occur, in spite of existing coherent safety management plans. An example would be not adhering to proper health & safety requirements when doing so would prolong the completion of a task.

Hazards in the working environment: Such as the exposure to hazardous chemicals which are used in the extraction, processing and refining of certain raw materials and can have adverse effects on workers’ health. Similarly, bad air quality within and around an extractive operation can negatively impact workers’ health if they are exposed to it without proper protective gear i.e. high concentrations of dust or (exhaust) fumes.

Hazards in surface mining: Tailing dams carry the potential for grave accidents to occur, indeed, there have been several mine disasters in the last years where the failing of the tailing dam caused many fatalities and severe harm to nature. Special care and maintenance of the dam are necessary and wherever possible liquid tailings are avoided in modern material processing. Furthermore, highwalls and benches can collapse as, over time, the structural integrity of highwalls and benches can deteriorate due to a variety of factors. A weakened highwall/bench emanates dangers such as rockfall or collapses and landslides which pose great danger to man and machine working further downhill.

Hazards in underground mining: Inadequate support of the roof in an underground mining operation can lead to roof fall and shaft sinking. In order to avoid the collapse of the underground opening needed for the mining operation, it is important to employ the correct mining method in conjunction with strong enough roof support.

Q2: How can we prevent people from harm through mineral extraction?

Safety management systems are put in place to manage the risks mentioned above. Every important and strategic risk and possible risk mitigation measure needs to be assessed. These risk assessments are intended to provide the basic information for decision-makers to enable them to develop strategies. Strategy is understood to be a precise plan of action designed to achieve a specific goal. The factors that could play a role in one’s own action are taken into account from the outset. Scarce resources make it necessary to set priorities with regard to both goals and procedures. The identification of risks should be done by identifying the possible sources of hazards in a holistic view. Generally, risk assessment consists of the three stages of risk identification, risk analysis and risk evaluation. Indeed, the difference between an unknown uncertainty and a known uncertainty can be decisive for the control of the risk.

Good risk management attempts to transform high risk levels into lower ones. The primary result of risk assessment is the creation of a risk register, which can then be used as a working document for later decisions and work, but above all for the setting of risk limits.

Q3: What is the state of the art in the industry?

Beyond a general risk assessment and management via health and safety management plans, companies can employ a variety of other approaches to identify and manage risks. For example, in 2018, after five years of work and consultations, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the standard ISO 45001:2018 (ISO, 2022), which has since become the most successful and adapted health and safety management standard. It describes the requirements of a modern, operational H&S management system and provides instructions for implementation for companies of all sizes – from smaller organizations to international corporations.

A chart showing Different Stages of the ISO 45001 Occupational Health & Safety Standard Figure 1: Different Stages of the ISO 45001 Occupational Health & Safety Standard

Additionally, larger extractive companies often employ a ‘people based safety and occupational risk management’ (PBS). PBS has been used in organisations throughout the world for over a decade. It provides tools and procedures that workers can use to take personal control of occupational risks.
PBS identifies four stages of H&S culture: Reactive, Dependent, Independent and Interdependent.

  1. Reactive Stage – People don’t take responsibility and believe accidents will happen
  2. Dependent Stage – People view safety as following the rules. Accident rates decrease.
  3. Independent Stage – People take responsibility and believe they can make a difference with actions. Accidents are further reduced.
  4. Interdependent Stage – Teams feel ownership and responsibility for safety culture. They believe zero injuries is an attainable goal.

Graph showing the Bradley Curve Figure 2: Bradley Curve showing the four stages of a company’s H&S culture

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Sustainable Management in the Extractive Industry

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