Health and safety are about prevention and response
Mining companies in Canada have invested millions of dollars in developing safety management systems to support personal safety, process safety and literally transform workplace culture.
Hazard and identification risk assessment (HIRA) is a core process. A strong, verifiable and audited management system supporting health and safety is an absolute must, both morally and from a regulatory standpoint.
And this investment has paid off. We are arguably one of the safest mining jurisdictions in the world. In Ontario, according to the Ontario Mining Association (OMA) there has been a 96% improvement in lost time injury frequency over the last 30 years. Other mining provinces can boast similar statistics.
But despite the regulatory framework, the culture and the safety management systems, accidents and disasters happen. The eight fatalities on Canadian mine sites in 2014 and the Mount Polley tailings breach in B.C. brings this point home very clearly.
That’s why health and safety programs have to include response as well as prevention.
All Canadian mining companies have emergency response procedures. Most have wider emergency response plans and crisis management plans – the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) program requires a crisis management plan in place and exercised.
But yet, a common complaint within health and safety business areas is that emergency management is not exercised enough and that this component in the health and safety management program is not given the same priority as prevention.
Management teams are extremely busy leading safe production. It is a real challenge coordinating all team members to be in the same place at the same time and focus on yet another activity that is not directly linked to their core roles.
But there are several reasons why management teams should take the time to exercise emergency and crisis response plans.
Emergencies and crisis can escalate rapidly and the need for immediate decision and rapid development of action plans is greatest at the time when information management and situational awareness is most challenging. In other words, having to make decisions that could impact safety of people, environment and assets without having all the information needed to do it. This is not skill that comes through day-to-day leadership experience.
Emergency events are tense and emotions are heightened. Exposure to the challenges of developing situational awareness and triaging numerous critical decisions in a short period of time is difficult.
Familiarization with plan, process and procedure goes a long way to preparing for a response role but this familiarization doesn’t come from just reading the plan and then putting it on the shelf. It can only come from using it.
Training saves lives. If an event occurs that threatens safety, the people that need to identify strategies to stabilize a situation will be more efficient if they’ve trained to the event – or similar event – than a team who has little training in problem solving and high stakes decision making.
Emergency exercises often reveal vulnerabilities and exposures not picked up in risk assessments. That supports more effective prevention and mitigation. Procedural deficiencies in response plans are also detected and the procedures themselves validated. You cannot get this without exercising the plan.
Any analysis of companies that have suffered emergency and crisis clearly shows that those with management teams who were trained and exercised were more competent, took care of their people more efficiently and led their organizations to recovery more rapidly than those companies who had teams that had not exercised.
Research by Oxford University also shows that companies who respond to emergencies and crisis effectively are more likely to actually increase market value over the long term, while companies that don’t, lose value.
Of course, this kind of evidence makes the argument that supporting the response side of a health and safety management system is the smart thing to do. Not just the right thing to do.