Safety article by Harold Hough

The Upper Big Branch (UBB) mining disaster still is rocking the mining industry. The tragedy at UBB, which resulted in the deaths of 29 miners and injuries to 2 others, unquestionably shook the very foundation of mine safety and caused everyone to look at what it takes to protect the nation's miners. Even three years later, the industry is still making improvements to its procedures to prevent such an accident from happening again. One glaring problem is that we often talk safety, but rarely take it further than reviewing the site’s safety statistics. Every mine will tell you that they place safety first. However, it is obvious that this “safety culture” hasn’t been as effective as one would believe. It doesn’t reside in a new piece of hardware or software. Nor, is it ingrained in workers just by sending them to a one hour safety class.

One problem has been the focus on safety statistics. Mines love to talk about how many long it has been since someone lost time due to an accident. But, do those statistics mean that the mine is safe or just lucky? And, do good safety statistics make mines complacent? In the case of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, they had a safety record that was enviable. They had operated seven years without a single lost time accident or major environmental accident. By that measure, which is the same one that many mining companies use, it was a safe operation. However, investigation showed that it was an accident waiting to happen. In other words, they had been safe by accident, not intention.

This is an issue brought up in the book, Safe by Accident, by Judy Agnew and Aubrey Daniels. The authors maintain that changes to behavior are more critical than the programs, equipment, and safety programs currently in place.

Part of the problem is that there remains a trade-off between productivity and safety. Profits come from productivity and no one cares if the ounce of gold they buy comes from a safe or unsafe mine. Consequently, the worker’s behavior is conditioned to think productivity first. And, if that behavior doesn’t bring around an accident, that bad behavior is positively reinforced. Conversely, if workers file a safety concern, they may face reprisals, which negatively reinforce good behavior.

The authors also warn about incentives based on incident rates. As was seen in the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig accident, incident rates do not indicate a safe environment, just one where safety issues are ignored and the operation has been lucky in not having a catastrophic accident.

The authors also take issue with the overreliance on technology. Computers can reduce human error in the short run, but they can also reduce long term reinforcement. In other words, workers rely on computers to tell them when there is a problem instead of relying on their own behavior.

One problem is that good safety statistics are like a drug – they make you feel good, while there are still problems. Mines with good safety statistics think they are safe and don’t need to improve. They fail to ask if the statistics reflect a safe environment, good luck, or merely mean the avoidance of small incidents indicate the mine is heading heedlessly towards a major accident.

The ultimate answer is to make safety a habitual behavior. As the authors note, “When you drive a car, you don’t have to think about slowing down when you see the brake lights come on in the car in front of you.” They maintain that if you have to think about safety when doing your job that means you haven’t become fluent in safety behavior. And, that thinking interferes with productivity. With good safety practices and behavior, workers are naturally safe and they can focus on productivity.

This, of course, isn’t a one time event. It is an ongoing process of fine tuning your safety practices and instilling that behavior that makes the workplace safe and productive. Don’t let your great safety statistics lull you into a major accident.