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Current health and safety practices and their system change potential

In this article we will share insights from the SUMEX health & safety policy brief on the system change potential of identified H&S practices.

Here, we provide you with some insights on the effectiveness of different health and safety practices in their contribution to the sustainability transition in the extractive sector. We utilize the Leverage Points (LPs) to provide the bigger picture of where practices in the European extractives sector stand regarding their potential to incrementally or fundamentally change the way it operates on health and safety.

Health and safety is not limited to the mining operation, but also includes individuals and communities in vicinity of the extractive operation. Health and safety, zero harm, safety first and workers’ wellbeing are important aspects for a sustainable management of the extractive industry. From a sustainable management perspective, occupational (workplace, employees) and process safety can be differentiated: while occupational safety is concerned with protecting the safety, health and welfare of people in a “smaller frame”, process safety focuses on the “bigger picture” and preventing incidents inherent to mining, such as landslides from tailings, dam failures, fires, or collapses of roof support systems.

Managing risks and pursuing safety is a crucial aspect for the sustainable management of extractives. The Leverage Points (LPs) approach by Donella Meadows goes beyond sustainable management, identifying points in a (sub-)system (e.g. energy, mining) at which changes can trigger action in a system and their transformative potential. Transformative processes require that practices change at different points in the system. Interventions in the system categories, material, and feedbacks (physical events: actions that target parameters, feedback loops, buffer stocks) mainly trigger mitigation of risky events and support incremental changes of the extractive system. Actions targeting so called ‘deep’ leverage points provide system structure (e.g. rules, information flow: actions that moderate the feedback and parameters) and govern the system’s intent, these have the potential to more fundamentally transform a system.

Changing the system’s fundamental design, intent, and the capacity to invoke them (‘deep LPs’) has strong transformative power: For example, the pursuit of new goals, culture change and related corporate management systems in the form of zero-harm, worker’s well-being or ‘active care’ and people-centered approaches (workers and communities). Additionally, new mining concepts (e.g. fully automated mines or in-situ leaching) would allow alternative, parallel land use options, which are safer for communities and the environment, and are potentially strong transformative concepts. While deep interventions show strong transformative power, they are also much more difficult to design and implement, requiring more time to unfold their transformative capacity. Consequently, a mix of different actions is required that target different points in the system.

A recap box of on Leverage Points as was covered in Step 8 of week 1

Extractive sector practices targeting health & safety and their positioning on the Leverage Point Scale

A pie chart showing the percentage distribution of identified practices for every Leverage Points e.g. 37% of data items fit Leverage Point 12 (Parameters) Figure 1: Overview of health & safety practices by Leverage Points’

For health and safety in the extractive sector, we identified 27 practices that target different leverage points in different system dimensions. Around half of all identified practices belong to the design category, either targeting various rules and institutions that are operationalizing and implementing health and safety goals and objectives. This institutional dimension is furthered by a strong focus on information practices: these, in particular, target the general provision of information to communities, specifically communication of risks, but also determining workers at risk as part of the workplace control.

These practices also include tools to assess plans for crisis management, health and safety management, or tailings management performance. The main target group responsible for such practices is the extractive industry, overall, and site operators, specifically. The strong focus on the design dimension with information and rules is owed to the importance of legislation and regulatory measures for health and safety. This is complemented by company level rules, guidelines and management plans which are supported by sector-wide ‘good practice guidelines’ (e.g. International Council on Mining and Metals). The H&S practices illustrate the important interplay of the public and private sector for sustainable management in the extractive industry.

Another strong focus lies on the material dimension: practices that target parameters are addressing the decrease of pollution, risk reduction, reducing soil or water contamination which is impacting human health (e.g. mercury) related to small scale gold mining, as well as the direct prevention of health and safety risks for local communities through technical innovation and strengthening process safety.

Less emphasis is paid to actions on a deeper system level, which would target the intentions and fundamental values. However, we see minor attempts on the goal and intent level, which emphasize a holistic management and emergency preparedness that also extends beyond the traditional mine life and potentially also includes shifting fundamental values like zero harm, ‘active care’ and people-centered approaches on the company level.

Now, on who should be responsible for implementing these practices, we see that the extractive industry and companies are very dominant. For all identified LPs, these actors play a fundamental role for the design and implementation that, on the one hand, further the sustainable management of extractive industries and mitigate risk, but, on the other hand, also support incremental change of the system. We also see that for H&S, the system boundaries are tighter than in other areas, such as land use planning. Consequently, this means that it mainly focuses on the company and site operation and less on a broader system scale.

A bar graph showing the amount of data items per Leverage Point and the relevance for different stakeholder groups)Click to expand Figure 2: Number of analysed health & safety practices grouped by Leverage Points and relevant stakeholder groups

Implications and Outlook

With our analysis, we highlight the current importance of the design and material dimension for actions on health and safety to support sustainable management and mitigate impacts of the extractive industries. So far, less attention has been paid to interventions on ‘deeper’ system levels, which might be owed to the nature and quite specific scope of health and safety. Our analysis suggests that health and safety has a stronger focus on the mitigation of sustainability challenges and ‘lower’ leverage points (e.g. reduction of incidents of water or soil contamination impacting human health). While these are of high importance for health and safety, they might play a more supporting and facilitating role in the context of sustainability transformations. Further emphasis needs to be put on the operationalization of shifting towards fundamental values like zero harm, ‘active care’ and people-centred approaches and the role it can play as well as the impact it can have in the broader sustainability transition.

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Sustainable Management in the Extractive Industry

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