Study to examine unsafe behaviours

Staff Reporter

A new study by the School of Mining Engineering, University of New South Wales, will examine the role of rules, regulations and legislation in influencing mine safety performance. Why, even when they know they are behaving dangerously do people persistently do so?

An earlier study commissioned by the NSW Department of Mineral Resources to examine the behaviour of operators of remote controlled continuous miners in underground coal mines in NSW, was published in February. The study has some startling findings which feed directly into this new project. The earlier study, carried out by Corrie Pitzer, managing director of SAFEmap, has been published on the Department's web site (www.minerals.nsw.gov.au).

One of the study's key findings is that risk-taking was part and parcel of the behaviour of many operators. Knowing the required procedures as well as the desire to comply seemed to play a small role in the operator's decisions regarding risky positioning. Pitzer's study also points to a general "lack of scientific enquiry of risk-taking behaviours of coal miners in Australia in general."

"Generally, for some routine tasks, the level of compliance was found to be quite high, while for other non-routine tasks, compliance was found to be extremely low in some cases," the study said.

Ten mines in NSW were visited in December and January this year, and 40 employees were observed during the study. Interviews were also conducted.

The report's introduction says that if human behaviour is considered an integral part in safety systems, it follows that employees should be fully involved in the development of work procedures and safety systems.

"The use of large equipment, such as continuous miners and shuttle care, add a significant degree of risk, as underground miners constantly have to position themselves close to moving equipment in confined spaces in circumstances of very poor visibility and poor environmental conditions... Of particular significance is the face that miners spend many hours underground, observing these conditions, without any accident occurring. They may, for example, never see an unplanned movement of a continuous miner and then logically conclude that such an event is 'practically impossible'."

It against the backdrop of this study and other risk management work, that Associate Professor David Laurence, plans to carry out interviews with operators, supervisors, mine managers, equipment suppliers, inspectors, and with as many stakeholders as possible, to find out the relationship between rules and behaviour in an underground context. Laurence, who has worked as a mine manager and safety inspector, said the main driver behind the new study are the regulators and mines departments. Laurence said the study of human behaviour and psychology was never factored into mining methods and technology in the past and was never taught to engineers and other mining professionals. But its pivotal role is now being recognised.

Laurence warns, however, that any attempt to reduce the risks of a particular method may introduce another risk situation.

"Remote controlled bogging in metal mines is an obvious example. We succeeded in eliminating the risk of operators entering open stopes by placing them at some distance along the drawpoint and using remote control harnesses and control panels to keep the operators safe. Unfortunately a number of people have now died due to this practice. Remote controlled continuous miners also have their issues and a guideline has been produced (MDG 5002) from the Department of Mineral Resources to assist operators in the safe operation of this equipment."

"We know that people are taking risks. We need to know more of why - is it because of ignorance, cutting corners, fatalism, deliberate defiance, or whatever? I'm keen to know more and will also be looking at the effectiveness of legislation and associated rules in modifying people's behaviour in the coming months."

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