Safety: Achieving zero harm

2022-04-01T04:32:15+00:00 April 1st, 2022|Mining Indaba 2022|

Philip Coetzer, Head, SHER (Safety, Health, Environment, Risk) at Royal Bafokeng Platinum shares his views on safety in mining and some of the core requirements to achieve ZERO HARM.

Safety at mines, internationally, is a heated topic that gets debated every day. In the past two years the South African mining industry has seen a worsening number of fatal accidents.

Since the working environment at mines is according to pre-determined designs, it is anticipated that there should be enough controls in place when the mine’s system is designed, to prevent unwanted events from happening. So, the question that often arises, is why do things still go wrong at a mine?

Is it a lack of understanding, a lack of cognitive ability or just a case of the wrong actions deliberately taken at that time? Can it also be an issue of attitude? One can have the knowledge that the speed limit on a road is 60km/h as clearly indicated by a road sign, however your attitude determines if you will comply. That attitude stems from a belief system that is developed over time; it is what you are exposed to and what you then take out of those experiences to guide you on the way forward. Thus, compliance is really about attitude. Attitude is a decision made by an individual when he/she evaluates the situation against past experiences. More often, the line manager or supervisor has the power, when he/she is a legitimate leader, to adjust the individual’s attitude towards a situation as people often follow and mimic a leader.

The only real and uncontrollable variable that remains a challenge in the mining environment is the geotechnical conditions of the ground being mined, as this can change from day to day. If the design was done by caring leaders, Zero Harm should be the outcome. As miners, we have vast experience gathered over many years, on how to deal with geotechnical conditions and successfully extract value from the orebody associated with it. We must apply that knowledge during the design phase in order to lower the risk, to as low as is reasonably practical.

There are however other unwanted events that do occur daily in the mining industry, with some having disastrous outcomes. In the South African mining scenario, especially in gold and platinum mining, we mostly make use of a conventional mining methodology, where we use narrow stoping widths to follow the orebody. In the older mines, this is a labour-intensive process, where not much mechanisation has been introduced in the extraction methodology applied. Therefore, more administration controls are prevalent in this environment. However, there is still a very high reliance on the individual making the correct decision at a critical point during his/her day at work. In most cases it is the correct decision, and the correct action follows, leading to a successful day. Sometimes the decision is not the correct one, and this leads to an unwanted event. Depending on the severity of the event, it then gets reported through the various regulatory channels, and sometimes is even reported in the national media.

In 2008, and with a later update in 2011, a guidance document ‘Mining Industry Culture Transformation’, was developed and agreed by the Tri-Partite stakeholders (state, labour organisations and the mining industry employers), which offers clear guidance on the steps that mining companies, together with their employees and stakeholders must take, to get closer to Zero Harm. Coupled with that, the Mine Health and Safety Act, Act 29 of 1996 (MHSA) also provides mines more autonomy to develop their standards and procedures through the Codes of Practice, which is a mine-based risk assessment methodology. This Act also gives the Mining Inspectorate from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy tremendous power. With these significant changes over the past 14 years, we have seen improvements in safety at the mines and a belief in the industry that Zero Harm is achievable.

There are many views as to why there is currently a regression in the South African mining industry safety performance. There are a few key drivers for this regression, however the most important one, is communication. When the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in South Africa in March 2020, there were some strict protocols implemented, where the gathering of people in large groups were prohibited. With most of the mines in South Africa having large numbers of workers, this restriction on mass meetings and group information sessions led to the message from the ‘manager’ being communicated by the front-line supervisor in small groupings, and on a team level basis. Thus, the charismatic leader who shared his/her safety vision with passion was now ripped out of the communication line. This change had to be implemented so fast, that there was no time to go through a proper change management process, thus leaving a huge communication gap. Most of us have had some exposure to the ‘broken telephone’ exercise, where the first person whispers a message to the next person and the next person then relays the message to the next person and so on up to the tenth person. In most cases, when the final person then says the message out aloud, we find that the original message and the final message do not correspond. In some cases, there is not even a hint of what was said in the original message, versus what the final message says. What is interesting in this exercise is that the people involved are specifically made aware of the requirement that the message at the end should be the same as the message at the start. Why is it that the original message gets misconstrued? What is the final message that gets to the working face of the mine?

Another important factor that influences effective communication, is that messages are not just about what is being said, but also how it is said. Body language and non-verbal cues are also critical to positively affirming the message.

Our key learnings over the past two years have been for us to improve our communication methodology and look at reaffirming our messages through the use of technology channels to improve communication with our employees.

We have seen how social media has captured the imagination of people across the world, during the period when Covid-19 was at its worst. We have also seen how nations became compliant due to being exposed to a specific message day in and out from online media channels and social media. Even those who didn’t believe in the wearing of masks now understand the importance of wearing a mask, and it is not just because it is law. When you do not wear a mask in a public place, you get the stares from other people. Thus, whatever your attitude is towards the wearing of a mask, you have to comply when you are in a public space. Peer pressure forces you to comply. We need to achieve this in the mining industry. Peer pressure should enforce compliance. Thus, risk takers should feel uncomfortable to take risks and should not be praised for the shortcuts they took and got away with on that day. The Zero Harm message must be clear.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen countries where the leader (president) viewed Covid-19 as a non-issue experiencing great losses due to everyone else then mimicking the leader’s behaviour. Thus, the leader must walk at the front and provide direction to the achievement of Zero Harm. It is critical that employees feel and believe the message of Zero Harm. Only then will they become believers and willingly support.

As an industry, we still have a long way to go on the road to Zero Harm. To get to Zero Harm, legitimate leadership is imperative. Care must be taken to ensure that everyone working at the mine is provided with the ability and the means to take the correct action when required in their work situation. If the leader really cares, he/she will include additional programmes that go beyond the work situation. With these in place, each person in the team can be held accountable for their part of the outcome, as part of their level of responsibility.

A caring relationship with your workforce does not mean that you are soft, it means that you will put in the required effort to enable your employees to perform to the best of their ability. They will then support you with positive outcomes. Good safety has a natural outcome which is improved performance on all levels in the organisation.

About the author:

Philip Coetzer, Head, SHER (Safety, Health, Environment, Risk) at Royal Bafokeng Platinum. Image credit: Philip Coetzer

Philip Coetzer, Head, SHER (Safety, Health, Environment, Risk) at Royal Bafokeng Platinum. Image credit: Philip Coetzer

Philip Coetzer is a Mining Engineer registered with ECSA and holds a Mine Manager’s COC. Starting off his career in 1984 as Learner Official in the Anglo-American Gold and Uranium division, he worked his way through the ranks to the mine shaft manager position. Philip moved from gold to platinum mining in 1999 at Anglo Platinum to start up the Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine. Philip was involved with direct mine production management up to 2007. In 2008 he moved to the Safety, Health, Environment and Risk portfolio. He was the President of the Association of Mine Managers of South Africa in 2017. Philip serves on several structures at the Minerals Council of South Africa and the Mine Health and Safety Council and is currently the Head: SHER of RBPlat.


 “The implementability of the policy depends largely on the deeper understanding of the contextual nuances of the sector and practicality.”