What drives mine safety?

University of Newcastle researchers identify the critical factors underlying safety and safety culture at Australian coal mines, offering guidance for safety management. By Rebecca Allen
What drives mine safety? What drives mine safety? What drives mine safety? What drives mine safety? What drives mine safety?

Image courtesy of NSW DPI.

Staff Reporter

Published in March 2010 Australian Longwall Magazine

 

The classification of coal mining as a high-risk industry is indisputable with high fatality rates in comparison to other occupations. A high threat of error, high level of risk and high demands on operational safety are characteristic of this industry. The complex interaction between humans, machinery and the environment that is characteristic of HRIs, particularly in underground coal mines, drives the need for advanced safety strategies and effective safety management systems.

 

Among HRIs, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (in the Ukraine, 1986) drew international attention and was recognised as the world’s worst industrial accident. From an industry perspective, this incident transformed the nature of accident investigation.

Before Chernobyl, the tendency was to seek the technological cause of accidents. After Chernobyl, investigating the human element was key.

 

Initially the focus was on “human error”, which led to organisations casting blame on individual behaviour. While human error has been identified as contributing to more than 70% of all accidents within HRIs, industrial accidents are rarely the result of one individual factor, rather several contributing factors act as a chain of events.

 

As such, human factors-based enquiry is now at the forefront of accident investigations, addressing a range of human, organisational, and situational/environmental factors in the role of accident causation.

 

Such investigations have revealed safety culture to be at the core of safety outcomes. A weak safety culture was determined to be the causal factor of Chernobyl.

 

The notion of a weak safety culture being indicative of poor organisational safety performance launched the reverse perspective that high-level operational safety would be upheld by a strong safety culture.

Safe operations therefore depend on a strong safety culture across the entire workforce. As such, culture drives safety and is at the core of both accident causation and error prevention.

 

Safety culture is the product of the attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of the workforce in relation to safety and involves all levels of the workforce.

 

Despite the knowledge that safety culture plays a critical role in both accident causation and error prevention within HRIs, safety culture investigations have not held a prominent role in safety management at Australian coal mines.

 

Several underlying factors contribute to safety culture. Identification of those critical safety issues at Australian coal mines would therefore direct future strategic interventions and proactive safety management.

 

Internationally, 10 main factors underlying safety culture have been identified across a range of HRIs. These factors cover attitudinal, perceptual and behavioural aspects as well as some situational and organisational elements. Ranked in order of importance these are:

 

  • Management commitment to safety,
  • Individual responsibility for safety,
  • Perceived level of risk,
  • Training,
  • Safety systems and procedures,
  • Prioritisation of safety and production,
  • Communication,
  • Importance of safety,
  • Risk-taking/safety behaviour, and
  • Environmental risk.

In order to compare this model to the Australian coal mining industry, a series of focus groups was conducted at a sample of Australian coal mines from the Hunter region in New South Wales.

 

All levels of the workforce participated, ranging from mine workers to mine management, and a set of 10 critical safety factors were identified. Ranked in order of importance, these are:

 

  • Prioritisation of safety and production,
  • Management commitment to safety,
  • Safety systems and procedures,
  • Safety training,
  • Communication,
  • Individual responsibility for safety,
  • Environmental risk,
  • Risk,
  • Risk-taking/safety behaviour, and
  • Organisational structure.

Eight of these factors were also identified in the international model, indicating the similarity of those issues underlying safety culture and indeed safety outcomes across all HRIs.

 

Two coal industry-specific factors were identified: risk, which relates to the general risks associated with employment; and organisational structure, which incorporates organisational elements contributing to safety such as shift length, reduction of the workforce and the incorporation of contract labour – an issue increasing in complexity in the national industry.

 

Prioritisation of safety and production was identified as the principal factor underlying safety culture at Australian coal mines. This relates to the balance between safety and production – a driving force for the industry at large.

 

This research provides the Australian coal mining industry with greater knowledge of the critical issues underlying safety culture. The use of safety culture investigation as a safety improvement strategy is not commonplace at Australian coal mines.

 

The identification of the critical factors underlying safety culture can be used as a launching pad for proactive safety management and provides guidance for the improvement of outcomes by targeting specific training and intervention.

 

The research team is continuing its investigation in order to enhance the safety culture and safety outcomes of the Australian coal mining industry.

 

* Rebecca Allen is a PhD student at the School of Psychology at the University of Newcastle and can be contacted at Rebecca.Allen@newcastle.edu.au.

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