mining fatalities

Many companies look to mining to lead the way on workplace safety because over the past two decades, they have suggested that their record on workplace fatalities is better than other industries. However, a damning report that reviews all deaths in the Queensland Mining Industry between 2000-2019 suggests otherwise. Dr Sean Brady for the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, tabled the report in February 2020 and argued that Queensland’s mining sector is in the grip of a death cycle and more lives are at risk without a safety overhaul.

And it appears that the prediction has come true with some recent fatalities again in the industry in Queensland and Western Australia.

For this article, we dive into the Brady Report to look at areas of concern and strategies that mining companies can use to address critical risks that lead to fatalities when completing high-risk work.

The Numbers

Over the past two decades, there have been 47 fatalities on Queensland mine sites and quarries, with eight deaths in the past two years. The alarming findings are that many of the fatalities were preventable with human error playing no part in the death of 17 workers. There were ten fatalities involving workers being aware of faults but with no action to address the risks were taken, while before another nine deaths there had been known near-misses incidents before they died. Dr Brady argues that,

If the industry continues to take a similar approach to safety, using the same philosophies and methodologies adopted over the past 19-and-a-half years, then similar safety outcomes are to be expected.

The Brady Report is timely because also in February 2020, the Queensland Government lifted the exemption for mining workers under their Industrial Manslaughter legislation. The Queensland mining industry is now under direct scrutiny to improve.

Under the Industrial Manslaughter laws, senior officers of a mine or quarry company can be tried for industrial manslaughter if found to be criminally negligent for a workers death. Negligence will cost mining companies with maximum penalties ranging up to $13 million and 20 years’ in jail.

Recognise the Mining Industries Cycle of Fatalities

There is an immediate need for the mining industry to recognise that they have a problem in that when they take their eyes off the ball, fatalities occur. The report notes:

The industry should recognise that it has a fatality cycle. Unless it makes significant changes to how it operates, the rate of fatalities is likely to continue at current levels. This pattern has been evident over the past 19½ years and is characterised by periods where a significant number of fatalities occur, followed by periods where there are few to none. This suggests that the industry goes through periods of increasing and decreasing vigilance. Past behaviour suggests that in the order of 12 fatalities are likely to occur over any 5 year period.

A fatality cycle is evident in the industry – there are periods when fatalities occur, followed by periods where there are few to none.

Stop Simplifying the Cause of Workplace Fatalities

Typically mining companies simplify the occurrence of incidents to a single cause, for example, human error or a freak accident, which has the potential to mask the underlying system failures. The report suggests:

The industry should recognise that the causes of fatalities are typically a combination of banal, everyday, straightforward factors, such as a failure of controls, a lack of training, and/or absent or inadequate supervision.

The majority of fatalities were not freak accidents. Many showed significant (and often unintended) interactions between factors across various levels in the mine site, including the actions of individuals, supervisors and the organisational culture. The review of the 47 fatalities showed that many were preventable, and there was rarely a single cause.

See our article, What You Can Do to Manage Silica Dust Hazards.

Training and Supervision

A total of 26 of the 47 fatalities involved a lack of task-specific training or competencies for the tasks or inadequate training. Supervisors and others are aware of the deficiencies and direct workers to complete the jobs anyway.

In 32 of the 47 fatalities, the tasks had a supervision requirement that was either inadequate or absent. In many of these cases, there was no supervisor present, or they lacked knowledge of the hazards and level of risk. There were even some instances, where supervisors watched as workers undertook unsafe acts.

The report recommends that:

The industry needs to focus on ensuring workers are appropriately trained and supervised for the specific tasks they are undertaking.

The Industry Has Many New and Inexperienced Workers

The report explains that more new and inexperienced individuals are entering the industry. There are two issues one is around training and the other about retention of talent and quickly promoting them into higher-level roles.

  1. As inexperienced people enter the industry, they receive training from people who are also reasonably inexperienced. Unfortunately, long-term workers who have spent a career in the industry are not passing on their deep learning.
  2. Because of the need to hire and retain people, there is a drive to promote them quicker than would have been in the past to prevent them from leaving and working for another mine.

Failure to Identify Hazards

Having a large number of new inexperienced workers entering mining is identified as a reason for the failures in identifying workplace hazards. Likely, these workers will not have the experience necessary to recognise and avoid exposure to hazards.

The Tap into Safety Platform can help here, because it offers interactive and engaging hazard awareness training available online and mobile. We focus on critical risk and the common workplace hazards that can lead to a fatality or serious injury within industry-specific scenarios. We assess using the hazard hierarchy of controls to reinforce critical control measures.

The Platform has over 150 out of the box training courses across a range of industry settings including courses specifically developed for the mining industry:

  1. Mining Maintenance Workshop
  2. Processing Areas
  3. Haul Roads
  4. Open-Cut Mining

If we don’t have what you need, we also build custom training content. If you’d like to know more, please contact us or click through to try a free online demo.

See our article, Can Employees Recognise, Recall and Report Workplace Hazards?

Enforce Controls to Eliminate Hazards

For identified hazards, there is a failure to enforce the control measures. The report also notes that most of the controls were at the lowest end, for example, administrative controls. There is not a strong enough focus to eliminate, isolate or engineer out the hazards:

The industry needs to focus on ensuring the effectiveness and enforcement of controls to manage hazards. Given the increasing Serious Accident Frequency Rate, industry should implement more effective controls (such as elimination, substitution, isolation, or engineering controls). A significant number of the controls reported put in place in the aftermath of an incident were administrative in nature.

The majority of the 47 fatalities in the past two decades, involved at least one failed or absent control.  There were ten fatalities involving known faults, where workers were aware of them, but took no action. Nine deaths had known near misses occur before the casualty and in some cases, the same fatality was repeated.

The industry is relying more on paperwork to control hazards. In the 2018/19 year, the percentage of hard controls was 30%, and administrative controls were 60%. One reason that the study notes for the high rate of administrative controls were the significant emphasis on the use of procedures. The industry default position is to use more procedures to control hazards and is not deliberately stepping through the hierarchy of controls.

See our article, How to Choose Effective Hazard Control Measures.

Simplify Incident Reporting

There are issues with reporting incidents to the Regulator because the current reporting system is cumbersome, ambiguous, and difficult for the industry to use.

Dr Brady suggests that:

The Regulator should develop a new and greatly simplified incident reporting system that is easy to use by those in the field, that is unambiguous, and that aims to encourage open reporting, rather than be an administrative burden to reporting.

There is evidence that underreporting of incidents is occurring, and the likelihood of critical incidents and reoccurring fatalities is high.

See our article, Near Miss Reporting Improves Workplace Safety.

Mental Health Concerns

During the investigation, workers were raising their concerns about mental health. Demands of fly in fly out work and the pressure that puts on both the miners and their families have critical impacts on employee mental health. Also, when a worker sustains an injury, the management of their mental health while in recovery is not as good as it could be. Serious injuries and fatalities also affect others on-site who require support.

Once again, this is where Tap into Safety can help with our online and mobile-friendly mental health training on relevant workplace topics that impact mental health. The library has several out of the box microlearning courses on a wide range of topics, including FIFO topics, that offer practical coping strategies to increase mental health literacy.

Critically, the training offers information on where to reach out for support, including a recommendation to access Employment Assistance Programs. The Platform also provides a record of training completion to assist in documented evidence for health and safety compliance requirements. If you’d like to know more, please contact us or click through to try a free online demo.

See our article, Strategies to Improve FIFO Workers Mental Health.

To Conclude

The Brady Report argues that the Queensland Mining Industry is in a death cycle with a spate of recurring fatalities. The report is urging mining firms to recognise the industry’s death cycle, avoid simplifying causes of death, ensure they adequately train and supervise workers, and properly enforce controls to prevent hazards. They are calling on the Regulator to simplify incident reporting to remove the barriers that create underreporting. There needs to be a concerted effort if the mining industry is to lead the way.

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