August 2019

Embedding health and safety practices into your professional life

  • By Dr Peter Standish, FAusIMM, Risk Engineering Consultant and member of the AusIMM Health and Safety Society Committee

This is a reflection on many years in the resources sector – investigating major losses, working with organisations to avoid health and safety incidents, and taking an ‘always learning’ approach to professional life. It also attempts to distil ideas put forward by my fellow AusIMM Health and Safety Society Committee members during our discussions and meetings.

There is no magic panacea that will cure all health and safety issues. But there is one common theme among every organisation that achieves exemplary status: clear thinking before acting.

Drawing on some hard-won experience, as well as wide reading on the subject, I believe considering the following questions can help you be a better professional, and assist your organisation in achieving optimal health and safety outcomes. I have included some of my own thoughts below each question. 

Does your organisation create an environment where safety outcomes are owned? 

Organisations where people think about their actions, and are happy to own their mistakes and share their successes, are typically safer and more productive places. You’ll know when this really is the case when an incident occurs, or a problem is observed, and the conversation is not about finding someone to blame – rather, people will have the confidence to admit that the problem lay with them. For more on owning outcomes (from the perspective of an elite Navy SEAL team), see Extreme Ownership by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink (2018). 

Do your technical team members think about embedding health and safety in their designs, plant selection and operational and logistics planning?

Many major problems arise when safety is an afterthought to design, rather than an embedded step in planning. This isn’t just about getting a group of people together to run a risk assessment when the designs are almost fully formed – it is about applying good, sound thinking, based on engineering and scientific principles, to the situation and identifying all possible scenarios. This will help to develop a plan or process the team can stick to, and equipment that is well suited to the applications required.

A useful way of confirming this is happening is to apply a control framework approach (see the next question).

Do you have a focus on thinking about control?

Mistakes get made and health and safety incidents occur when people make decisions under confusing, pressured conditions. At the higher planning or strategic level, one way to address this is to break down the situation using a control framework model. This model begins by considering what needs to be in place for things to go right (ie the required operating states that need to be maintained), then breaks this down to apply incident history and a failure modes and effects-style of thinking to identify issues that cause this state to be compromised or lost (Figure 1).

This level of clarity guides designing the business inputs (worker knowledge, equipment parameters, workplace features, organisational requirements) in a solid, thoughtful way. This methodology grew from a Glencore project, enhanced through involvement from the Earth Moving Equipment Safety Roundtable (EMESRT). More information can be found by visiting emesrt.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/EMESRT-Annual-Report-2018.pdf

Figure 1. Control framework model.

Is high-quality strategic and tactical thinking embedded in the site plans and systems?

Management plans are a legislated requirement in many jurisdictions – and are an attempt to embed good systems into operations.

Problems arise when the management plans become incoherent and unworkable. For example, when different plans have different approaches to the same issue, or when a role in the company has so many requirements laid upon it that the job is impossible to perform – think what is typically expected of a supervisor! 

An operation is set up for success when there is a workable number (typically less than 200) of commitments to business inputs across all management plans – and where each of these inputs has a nominated ‘Accountable’ role and a clear ‘Responsible’ role for each operating area. 

The terms Responsible and Accountable are from the ‘RACI’ model. Responsible role holders apply the business activity in their span of control, while Accountable role holders have ultimate carriage of the business activity – ie confirming that the right activities are correctly being applied, and reporting on this to the board or top level of the organisation. Rounding out the acronym, ‘Consulted’ roles are engaged with and are part of the approval process for any launch or re-design of an activity, while ‘Informed’ roles are updated on the design, implementation and modification of the business activity. 

Management plans should be concise and readable – acting as a memory aid for people who are well trained in their site-specific requirements. 

The business inputs presented in these plans should also be coherent, and should include: 

  • a clear statement of what is required – the specification, and how this will be implemented 
  • a monitoring system to provide auditable records and a way to detect deviation from specified requirements 
  • a longer-term verification process that confirms that the system continues to match the site requirements.

As a final word on management plans and systems, consider the following set of observations: 

  • high-quality people will achieve a good result in all situations 
  • average people will produce a very poor result when plans and systems are weak 
  • average people can deliver acceptable outcomes when plans and systems are robust
  • high-quality people can deliver great results when plans and systems support their efforts.

Conclusion

There is obviously more to this topic, and further discussion to be had. But with health and safety in mind, these questions are a good set of conversation starters to ask as a reality check for both your organisation and your individual role as a resources professional. 

I would encourage everybody to visit the AusIMM member dashboard and select Health and Safety as an ‘Area of Interest’ – this will make you part of the AusIMM Health and Safety Society and let you join the conversation. 

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