April 2017

Joanne Farrell discusses health and safety best practice in the minerals industry

  • By AusIMM

Joanne Farrell is Group Executive Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) and Managing Director Australia at Rio Tinto, and was a keynote speaker at the Minesafe International 2017 conference. The AusIMM Bulletin asked Joanne for her views on key issues and best practice relating to health and safety in the minerals industry.

What do you see as the key issues that the industry needs to address from a health and safety perspective?

Health and safety management in the mining industry has progressed significantly in the past decade. Many inherent risks have been acknowledged and addressed through design, new equipment, technology and well-established systems and processes. While this has significantly reduced the number of fatalities experienced, they do still occur and injuries, both serious and minor, are recorded. The industry therefore needs to find the next generation of controls to take us to the next inflection point in our journey towards zero harm.

We have moved on from thinking that all risks are realised from the same taxonomies towards complementary focuses on injury and illness reduction, fatality prevention and catastrophic (mass fatality) events avoidance.

At Rio Tinto, as with many of our industry peers, we have very successfully implemented a critical risk management program that has turned the focus on to critical controls. This has had the effect of truly empowering the operator to stop work if these are missing. We have started to see the impact of this program in terms of reducing our fatalities and potentially fatal incidents. What we continue to see is injuries due to unforeseen and non-life threatening events, so the challenge now is for our frontline leaders to increase the emphasis on injury prevention while maintaining a balance with fatality and catastrophic event prevention. We see human performance, physical and mental fitness for duty and incorporating health and safety considerations in design and procurement as just some of the pathways to achieving this balance.

While focusing on leadership and team members’ hazard identification and control, including a focus on behaviour and culture, we recognise the importance of making investment and design decisions that eliminate or reduce hazards at the source. With the increasing focus on automation and technology, we acknowledge that this can potentially introduce new risks that must be carefully planned for and implemented. This is true for both health and safety risks, particularly in the area of health, where the industry has seen a resurgence of historical diseases.

Societal issues such as mental health, drug and alcohol use and broader well-being issues such as fatigue, obesity and an aging population also present challenges in the workplace.

How best would you measure performance progression in health and safety?

For safety performance, a balance between leading and lagging indicators is important. Keeping a lagging indicator such as an all-injury frequency rate allows us to measure trends and review the impact of specific events as compared with business as usual in a way that is normalised. It also allows for benchmarking within and across companies. For leading indicators, it is important to incorporate learning measures such as repeat incidents, repeat critical control failures or material risk reduction. A cultural measure can also be informative, assessing such things as leadership time in the field, learning from incidents, reporting culture, closure of audit findings and sharing safe solutions.

For health, lagging indicators are far too late (often after employment has ceased). The emphasis for health should therefore be on proactive indicators such as exposure levels, the elimination of hazards or a reduction in ambient noise or dust levels. Cultural assessments can also add value here, with things such as health in design of new or changed equipment or processes, adherence to PPE and leadership actions to demonstrate a concern for health impacts and effects.

Is zero harm aspirational or a real target?

We firmly believe that zero harm is achievable and that we must instil this belief in all leaders and their teams, both employees and contractors.

In the past, there has been much attention given to lost time injury numbers and maybe not enough given to process safety. What are your thoughts on where the focus balance should be?

Rio Tinto’s safety strategy is focused on taking a balanced approach between injury reduction, fatality elimination and catastrophic event prevention, including process safety. This was a deliberate approach to ensure that the low-probability, high-consequence risks and events receive an appropriate level of rigour and attention compared to high-probability, low-consequence injuries. The work required to address each of these areas is different but complementary and requires a balanced focus.

What has the industry done to address the impacts that fly in, fly out (FIFO) work may have on a person’s emotional health and well-being and what do we still need to do?

As the industry draws its workforce from society, our workforces face the same health challenges as society at large. The industry is aware of and concerned with the increasing societal issue of mental health. To restrict it to assuming it just affects FIFO workers excludes a large portion of our workforces. The solutions are multifaceted and should form part of fitness for work initiatives and programs. This is an area that starts to blend at-work and off-work time and activities. At Rio Tinto, like many others in the industry, we have employee assistance programs, but have recognised that this is not enough. We have conducted significant research and benchmarking that has underpinned a series of mental health and well-being programs that are for the benefit of the total workforce, not just our FIFO population. The health standards that we introduced in 2003 include the requirement to provide employee assistance programs and periodic medical assessments. We have been investing in a number of activities and areas of focus such as educating leaders and employees on mental health and well-being; investing in our FIFO camp facilities to allow good rest, providing healthy and tasty food and providing access to leisure and sports facilities; enabling peer-support programs to provide mechanisms to look out for mates; a renewed focus on alcohol and drug programs; providing communication facilities for families; and support for on-site professionals caring for employees experiencing well-being challenges. This is an issue for the whole of Australian society, and it is something that we need to share responsibility, along with government and health services, to prevent.

What extent do you believe mental health and well-being play in safety at work?

We believe and see the clear correlation between mental health and well-being and safety performance. Positive mental health is linked to higher levels of engagement, increased focus and concentration, fewer distractions and higher energy levels generally. Employees challenged with mental health issues, either over a sustained or a short period, can be absent from work or attend work but suffer from ‘presenteeism’. We also recognise that the coping strategies that many people adopt can further exacerbate the issue and lead to even less safe behaviour and/or fatigue. We rely on our leaders to provide a safe environment for their teams to talk freely about their concerns and to direct their teams to get the support they need, either through one of our peer-support programs or our employee assistance program.

How do you relate productivity and operational safety with employee mental health?

Safety is one aspect that becomes compromised, but productivity is also directly impacted when someone is experiencing poor mental health. At the moment, we have recognised the correlation but can only comment on the links in theoretical terms. Absenteeism is an obvious means by which to measure productivity loss, but it is far more difficult to accurately quantify a drop in productivity due to distraction, poor physical health (arising from coping mechanisms such as eating, drugs or alcohol) or fatigue. Our efforts remain focused on identifying those in need of support, providing education and peer-support programs and establishing employee assistance programs at all of our sites.

What does a serious accident cost a company like Rio Tinto in lost productivity, financial loss and hurt?

The first impact is on the employee, their family and their workmates, and it can often extend to impact the community in which they live. Depending on the nature of the incident, it can also impact emergency response teams or others who are connected to the incident. From a company perspective, a serious accident at any of our sites will receive the same response, and, outside of data from our workers’ compensation claims, we do not focus on the financial impact of these events. Productivity is obviously impacted by the fact that there will be a site shutdown until such time as conditions are suitable to recommence, including the conclusion of investigations and the replacement of any equipment etc. The management team responsible will spend time supporting affected team members, communicating with the impacted community if required and supporting the regulatory and internal investigations, taking them away from their usual activities. There may also be a productivity and morale impact on the team members involved. Finally, depending on the incident, there may also be damage to the company’s reputation.

Our stated goal is to send our workforce home safe and healthy after each shift and avoid all of these potential impacts.

How do you relate operational and productive effectiveness with safety?

Operational and productive effectiveness go hand-in-hand with good safety. Work that is designed and assigned in a clear, logical and consistent manner will result in both safe and effective outcomes. The right tools, knowledge and experience are equally important. An operation that is running stably and well provides a much safer environment. A disproportionate amount of injuries occur when the process is not in control or does not run to plan (eg plant breakdowns).

As technology develops, so too does the type of work undertaken at mines and in exploration. What new health and safety issues do you see being introduced in coming years?

The advent of technology such as automation directly removes people from hazardous environments, thereby reducing risk. However, it may introduce new risks that are more technical in nature and often more difficult to see, for example, systems integration or poor calibration of sensors. There are also behavioural change risks associated with new technology as people may start to rely totally on the machines for their safety and lose the innate fear that has helped humans survive.

As the work moves to be more office- than field-based (operation centres and the like), potentially new health risks may emerge arising from physical inactivity such as obesity and general wellness and fitness.

What achievements have brought you the most satisfaction in your career in the resource industry?

Having led a team and a function over the past five years that has put systems, practices and cultures in place that have delivered a reduction in injuries and will deliver a material reduction in the number of fatalities has to be one of the highlights. Rio Tinto has its own individual programs and efforts of course, but I don’t think this would have been possible without cross-industry collaboration and sharing of best practices. The lessons from fatalities and near-fatal incidents are being freely shared among industry peers, and this information is making a difference on the front line, be it through health and safety systems design to the adoption of best practice health and safety in design considerations. From a personal perspective, I am proud to say that Rio Tinto has made considerable progress in achieving a balance in terms of attention between low-probability, high-consequence catastrophic risks, fatality risks and injury prevention. Being part of the leadership team that introduced critical risk management across Rio Tinto, one of the most significant safety initiatives since we first focused on a group response to safety with the introduction of our Safety Standards and Health, Safety, Environment and Quality Management System, has given me a lot of pride and satisfaction.

What advice would you give to new management in a business in terms of health and safety leadership?

To new management I would say, don’t think you have to tinker. Find out what is working before you consider changing anything – confusion on ‘how we do things around here’ can be the greatest threat to good health and safety outcomes.

Your leadership in this area is an ethical responsibility that requires constant attention and is integral to how we lead in a broader sense. Living the values of the culture you want to create is critical, and creating an open and engaged environment is key to ensuring that this leadership is cascaded both ways through all levels of your team. It is important to create a positive health and safety culture where your team understands the reasons behind the tools and processes that are in place and actively participate because they believe in their value. As a leader, your team should want to go home healthy and unharmed at the end of each shift, they should know how to keep themselves healthy and safe during each activity and they should know that you, as a leader, care enough about them to put that goal above your production targets.

In your systems and initiatives, ensure a balanced approach between injury reduction, fatality elimination and catastrophic event prevention. Although complementary, their causes and the means to avert their occurrence are different.

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