Starting a conversation for improved H&S performance

To protect lives at work we must address culture, says Mark Holmes, manager, health and safety at ICMM
Starting a conversation for improved H&S performance Starting a conversation for improved H&S performance Starting a conversation for improved H&S performance Starting a conversation for improved H&S performance Starting a conversation for improved H&S performance

The catastrophic failure of a tailings storage facility at Vale’s Corrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, took place on January 25, 2019

Mark Holmes

In the time it takes to read this article, three people will have died from a work-related accident somewhere in the world.*

This is a sobering thought. No one should expect to be injured, maimed or killed at work, and employers should do all that they can to make sure this does not happen.

For the past 10 years, through the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), I've worked with some of the world's leading mining and metals companies to try and stop fatalities from occurring. Sadly, we - let alone the industry as a whole - have never succeeded in having a fatality-free year.

Tragically, this trend is set to continue in 2019.

The catastrophic failure of a tailings storage facility at Vale's Corrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, on January 25, 2019, is a stark example of just how dangerous mining can be. When the dam collapsed, 11.7 million cubic metres of mining waste surged through the mine site towards the local town and countryside below. As of September 9, 2019, 248 people are confirmed dead and 22 are missing.

Ask the average person on the street what they consider to be some of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and mining is probably not far off the top of their minds. Whether it's stories of trapped miners in Chile, or catastrophic failures of tailings dams, the industry continues to see fatalities on an unacceptable scale - any single fatality is simply one too many. The industry must improve.

All the companies I work with are determined to improve their health and safety performance. They understand it's their responsibility to ensure that their employees get home safely.

Recently, I joined H&S specialists from across ICMM's membership for a process of deep reflection and open discussion to try and better understand why we continue to have fatalities in the mining and metals industry.

The outcome of these very frank discussions are eight fatality prevention statements. While these statements are not an end in and of themselves, they're valuable conversation starters that all mining and metals companies need to consider and debate. They're designed to help companies improve business and safety culture, and leadership.

The statements support:

  1. Zero fatalities mindset. As an industry we need to continue to focus on fatality prevention, while not neglecting work towards injury reduction.
  2. Safety leadership at all levels. This is critical if we're to achieve a fatality-free mining industry. Where missing, a true, positive culture of safety needs to be developed and sustained.
  3. Change management. Safety as a value must be a constant focus and cannot be allowed to flex or wane in industry cycles, divestments or joint venture partnerships.
  4. Learning from the past. We must learn from past fatalities and proactively apply critical controls to mitigate known fatal risks.
  5. Risk management capability. We must be better at building adequate capability to ensure high quality risk assessments, and address variations in tolerance to risk at different operations across the world.
  6. Critical controls. We must recognise fatal risks and eliminate them, including for technological solutions, as part of a balanced, holistic approach.
  7. Fall of ground. Operating deep, high-stress mines requires continued efforts to better protect individuals from rock bursts and fall of ground.
  8. Prevention is better than cure. Occupational disease from mining is resulting in more fatalities than has been recognised in the past. The industry needs to be prepared to adopt new, different controls to those required for other fatal risks to prevent the burden of occupational disease.

Acceptable, safe and healthy working conditions are a fundamental human right and critical to the long-term viability of the mining and metals industry. While there has been significant improvement in the H&S performance of the industry over the past decades, there remain some persistent and continuing challenges we need to address - and address quickly, as Brumadinho reminds us.

We encourage any interested stakeholders to consider how the lessons can be applied to their own organisation and ask the question: "What else can we be doing to truly get to zero fatalities?"


*The ILO estimates that 320,000 die per year from work-related incidents. There are 525,600 minutes in a year. It takes approximately five minutes to read this piece.