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Mining safety culture built on real leadership

In mining, the topic of safety, health and environmental responsibility (SHE) has been front and centre in executives’ minds for a while now. Stakeholders have increasingly demanded accountability for the industry’s impact on employees and society overall. And closer attention to SHE has generated positive results, including a reduction in the number of total recordable injuries in mining.
Mining safety culture built on real leadership Mining safety culture built on real leadership Mining safety culture built on real leadership Mining safety culture built on real leadership Mining safety culture built on real leadership

Image: Barrick Gold

Damon Bland, Alexis Bour and Daniel Feldkamp*

But while these improvements are important, the mining industry still has significant work to do on the SHE front.

This industry remains considerably more dangerous than other industries, and perils still abound. These include injuries and fatalities caused by mishaps such as road accidents in remote mining locations, electrocution or machinery malfunctions; catastrophic events that inflict severe loss of life, such as gas explosions or mine cave-ins; and health problems and fatalities caused by exposure to harmful substances or vulnerability to infectious diseases, the COVID-19 pandemic being the most recent.

It doesn't have to be this way. Indeed, analysis by BCG and the Global Minerals Industry Risk Management programme found that as much as 80%-85% of safety incidents in mining are caused by internal factors—such as improper performance of work processes, poorly designed ventilation systems, lack of proper safety procedures, insufficient training of employees on safety protocols and the wrong incentives. This statistic contains a kernel of good news: Miners have far more control of internal factors than they do over external forces that can pose profound dangers, such as extreme weather events.

Wanted: new ways of thinking about safety

But to gain control over internal factors, mining companies must do more than just watch employees every moment in a bid to ensure that everyone follows safety rules. The sheer scope of such surveillance makes it infeasible. And since accidents can happen in an instant, observers can't hope to react swiftly enough to prevent injury—or worse. What's more, while technology solutions (such as automatic turn-off of large equipment) have their place, they can't eradicate the variability and unpredictability inherent in mining companies' operations.

What's really needed? It's mining companies where managers and employees do the right thing regarding safety even when no one is watching them. It's companies where people are sufficiently free and informed to challenge risky situations and logically think through consequences of the behaviors and conditions they see around them. Companies with such a safety-first culture stand a better chance of achieving true world-class SHE performance. That performance manifests itself as outcomes including a strong sense of ownership of safety performance throughout the organization and deployment of leading-edge safety solutions that people know how to use—all of which can support the ultimate objective of zero fatalities across all of a company's operations.   

Achieving this level of SHE performance requires thinking differently about safety. That is, adopting specific beliefs about it that in turn prompt behaviours and practices that further reinforce safety. The use of masks during the pandemic is an apt example. A face mask is technical solution that helps minimise the spread of the virus from an infected person who wears it. People know what the mask is and what its purpose is. However, they won't actually don a mask unless they believe that the mask works and that protecting others from one's own germs is worthwhile.

But managers can't just order people to think in new ways about safety. They must alter what we call the context of the organization. Contextual changes influence new ways of thinking that then lead to safer behaviors and practices.

Six core beliefs about safety

BCG's safety framework (which we've used with clients in multiple industries, including mining; see figure below) lays out steps companies can take to enable people to first act in new ways that nurture beliefs essential for optimising SHE performance. After interviewing hundreds of mining professionals around the world, we arrived at six such beliefs.

Below, we take a closer look at each, and provide examples of behaviours and practices that one might see in a company where these beliefs are well developed.

1.            Safety is everyone's right. People throughout a safe organisation recognise that all employees and contractors, not just those working on the front lines of the mining company's operations, deserve to be safe both at work and at home. They believe that attention to ensuring employees' safety doesn't stop at the mine gates, along with personal protective equipment, at the end of a shift. Safety discussions happen at all levels, in all functions, and show up on every meeting's agenda.

2.            Safety is everyone's job. In world-class safety exemplars, people throughout the organization, at every level, view SHE as their responsibility—not that of some distant risk-management office. Rather than setting up a central safety team with accountability for driving improvement, leaders in such companies make sure that everyone in the organization, from the front lines to the top team, feels free and empowered to challenge unsafe conditions or behaviors and make improvements as needed. Safe working practices reflect the latest improvements and working conditions, and they're documented and communicated in language that employees can easily understand and adopt. Moreover, cutting-edge safety tools and solutions are in place, accompanied by accessible instructions and rigorous training for using them. Finally, the company also strives to build a consistent set of SHE-related capabilities across all teams.

3.            All operational risks can be mitigated. In safety-minded organizations, people believe that all risks can and should be mitigated—whether a risk stems from internal or external forces. Leaders model this belief by setting safety as the No.1 priority for the company. They also provide the time and other resources needed to prevent or minimise risks whilst ensuring that teams throughout the organization share best safety practices, including behaviours and technical solutions. Additionally, leaders strive to mitigate risks through both preventive as well as corrective measures.

4.            Working safely is a condition of employment. Everyone is expected to act in accordance with safe working procedures if they are to remain on the payroll. During job interviews and performance reviews, managers send the message—loud and clear—that safe work habits are required on the job. Everyone is also expected to challenge any work procedure that is unclear or appears to be suboptimal regarding safety. After all, work procedures represent the best way to determine an organization's current knowledge of how to perform specific tasks. 

5.            The company helps people adopt safe working practices. In organisations where this belief is strong, process leaders and managers set the pace of work deliberately to avoid pressuring employees to take safety shortcuts. Safety systems and work sites are regularly audited, and any deficiencies are promptly addressed. Behaviours that improve safety are recognised and rewarded; for instance, bonuses paid when a company reaches targets for reductions in lost-time injuries.

6.            Safety non-compliance won't be tolerated. Just as people know that safe behaviour will be supported and rewarded, they understand that risky behaviours will attract immediate notice—including swift work stoppages if necessary. They expect such behaviours to be called out, and the company to follow up on each case, including taking corrective measures and penalising people who don't comply with safety standards.

While attention to safety, health, and environmental responsibility has generated positive results, mining companies have additional work to do on this front. Indeed, improving SHE performance is an ongoing process, not a ‘one-and-done' effort. To support this process, miners must encourage and empower leaders and employees throughout their ranks to think differently about safety. Understanding and promoting the six beliefs outlined here can help.

*Damon Bland (bland.damon@bcg.com) is a partner and associate director at BCG based in Zurich; Alexis Bour (bour.alexis@bcg.com) is a managing director and partner at BCG based in Johannesburg; Daniel Feldkamp (feldkamp.daniel@bcg.com) is a managing director and partner at BCG based in Melbourne.