Canadian Mining Journal


Taking the mining industry to a higher level of excellence

Is there room for improvement in safety, operational efficiency and standardization in the mining industry?

Is there room for improvement in safety, operational efficiency and standardization in the mining industry?

Sure there is, but recent history suggests there’s still plenty of room for more action.

If the mining industry has incorporated technological advances, instituted safety policies, and developed individual training plans, then why is it still repeating the same mistakes?

The answer lies not with additional regulations, policies, and more inspections. Rather, it requires a change in operational and organizational culture; a culture of teamwork, communication and accountability that has its foundation established by the organization’s leadership and ultimately permeates throughout the organization as common practice.

The end result is to incorporate a methodology of “precision operations,” in other words; doing the job right the first time.

How fast the task is accomplished is not the goal, but consistent, predictable, and repeatable results need to be the target.

Technology and systems alone are not the answer

You don’t have to be told that mining is a high-performance, high-reliability industry which operates in a high-risk environment.

High-performance organizations can be defined as those with well-trained personnel manoeuvering in a hazardous environment, and operating sophisticated and expensive equipment. And high reliability refers to those operations that require predictable outcomes and have the absolute necessity to get the job done right the first time.

The nature of mining hazards makes the potential for failure unacceptable. Achieving zero incident operations is an attainable goal; however, it requires the buy-in of the entire organization. More importantly, it requires patience.

Changing a culture does not happen overnight and, as other high-performance, high-reliability industries can attest, does not occur simply through changes in technology, systems and programs.

Even though the mining industry has made great strides in reducing lost time incident (LTI) rates, or Total Reportable Incident Rates (TRIR), over the past decade, the truth remains that without a discipline to compliance and a change in cultural behaviour, the industry will continue to see rises in rates following years of plateaus.

The habitual pattern of non-compliance will soon catch up to “us” and accidents will (not may) begin to occur. Therefore, instituting policies, and implementing technological and system advances alone is not the answer; we must change the culture of how we operate, change our collective (not individual) behaviour towards doing the job the right way the first time, and every time.

Affecting change through effective leadership

Studies have shown that human failure (commonly referred to as at-risk behaviours) cause 88-96% of all incidents or mishaps. Nonetheless, accidents are preventable.

Behaviour-based safety studies show that daily coaching is required for employees in high-risk operations in order to absorb and use new techniques. The same studies conclude that the minimum frequency of “coaching” to make and sustain change are every two weeks.

Typically, employee orientation is held once, while task/hazard and refresher training are held once a year.

The lack of frequency will not necessarily affect a change in the corporate culture, but it implies that for standards and regulations to be instilled and followed by the workforce, they must be enforced in daily practices and operational habits.

Rules enforced are rules followed and, as a result, respective training plans must be complemented with daily “coaching.” Only by changing mindsets on a routine basis can the Canadian mining industry ensure safer workplaces in line with global mining practices.

Essentially, it is through the daily presence of effective leadership and mentorship that a change in culture is stimulated.

In his book Falling Ground; Human approaches to mines safety in SA, author Dr. Philip Frankel concurs with the sentiment that technological advances alone will not solve the problem. He further states that in order for a zero incident culture to be instilled, mine leadership must manage how the workforce perceives and responds to the inherent risk associated with mining operations.

Dr. Frankel says few will admit to bending safety rules and taking short cuts in the face of production pressure, (“a human trait as old as hunting and gathering”) but points out there are a few traits the mining industry must have in order to achieve a safe and efficient environment.

They include: allowing free communication up and down the organizational levels, empowering all employees to stop the job when they observe an unsafe situation developing, a complete set of defined systems and standards, complete abidance to all policies and procedures by all employees all the time (no short cuts or cutting corners), and a well-defined accountability process in place when company policies and procedures are breached.

Upper management often formally defines the vision or philosophy for the organization. It then becomes the responsibility of the organization’s leaders to influence his/her followers toward the achievement of the goals and objectives. If leaders truly want to empower employees to do what is right, encourage initiative, and allow people to make honest mistakes, then leaders must do more than just state the vision; they must act in a manner that communicates values, vision, and assumptions to those employees.

Action, not words, will change the culture in any company. In order to act, the mine’s management must understand the needs of the miners and understand the relationships the leaders and employees have with one another.

Team leaders must first appreciate the members of the organization and the nuances of the different groups within the organization. In order to influence the hidden cultures and cliques within the organization, emphasis needs to be placed on persuading and influencing the decision-makers.

Understanding the character of the decision-makers, especially those who are influential among their peers, and their disposition for change coupled with effectively communicating with the employees within the respective confines of the job site is essential.

Ultimately, a good leader will be able to use all available resources to influence the organization and its employees toward the successful attainment of the established goals.

Leadership develops the atmosphere and lives by it in the daily practices of the organization. Once that is established and believed to be true by the followers, the environment is ripe to cultivate a cultural change. The process begins with one person stepping up to the plate.

One step at a time and definitely not overnight, the “movement” will begin to grow and subsequently permeate throughout the mine until it is ingrained as the standard in which operations are executed.

An “inversion of expertise” exists with technological advances, as evidenced in the mining industry with technological advances such as the longwall shearer, continuous miner, excavators, larger equipment, and conveyor automation, among others.

In effect, the difficulty with inversion of expertise is supervisors must continuously remain up-to-date and, more importantly, credible with the new technology. That in turn forces leaders (supervisors) at the mine sites to be more transparent and willing to listen to the workers.

This, unfortunately, in many parts of the industry, is contrary to how supervisors were “brought up.”

A study written by the International Journal of Leadership Studies researched several leadership styles in an attempt to assess which was most effective in team building.

The findings concluded that “transformational” and “empowering leadership” were the most effective styles.

nsformational leaders are those who inspire and stimulate their workers to perform at a level beyond expectations. The transformational leader “encourages followers to challenge the status quo” and actively pursue the objective established by the supervisor.

The empowering leader, per the study, is a “significant paradigm shift” in that the supervisor stresses “self-influence rather than external, top-down influence.”


As mentioned earlier, the mining industry has experienced significant advances in technology and systems. The industry has also instituted regulations and policies that have provided a foundation for safe and efficient operating environments. However, these changes alone will not achieve the efficiencies and safety the mining industry seeks. In order to progressively tend the number of injuries and fatalities towards zero while increasing operational efficiency, programs need to be developed that dramatically change the culture of the organization.

These programs revolve around effective leadership, daily “coaching,” a mindset of teamwork, and performance excellence.

* This Special Report provided by Vince Saporito, Project Manager for Mining and an instructor at Check 6, Inc., and Frank M. Self, Certified Mine Safety Professional (CMSP), who worked 36 years in the coal and gold mining industry in various positions including Chemist, Mine Engineer, Mine Foreman, Safety Manager/Superintendent and most recently as the Regional MSHA Compliance Coordinator for Barrick Gold of North America. Each mine in which he worked, Trapper Mining Inc. and Ruby Hill Mine, received the Sentinels of Safety Award during his tenure, the most prestigious safety award offered in mining.

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