April 2015

Health and Safety – an essential element of ethical practice

  • By Peter Hancock FAusIMM(CP), Member, AusIMM Complaints Committee and New Zealand Branch Committee

The importance of health and safety as part of members’ obligations under the AusIMM Code of Ethics

The minerals professions cover a diverse range of activities, and involve work that has an equally diverse health and safety risk profile. We all have health and safety obligations. We are responsible for ourselves, our colleagues and – for those with leadership responsibilities – our staff. We are also responsible for protecting the health and safety of the community at large, not just those people who are working in the minerals industry.

The minerals industry’s workplaces can have inherent hazards. Risks need to be assessed and managed. This reality is reflected in the fact that many governments in Australasia and around the world have established specialist mining health and safety laws and regulators. It is reflected in statistics showing unacceptable rates of fatalities and injuries in the minerals sector. It is clearly demonstrated by tragedies such as the 2010 Pike River Coal Mine explosions.

Health and safety can only be achieved if risks are identified and effectively addressed before an accident happens.

Health and safety incidents arise for many reasons. This can include the unfortunate reality that health and safety risks are often not identified until after a preventable accident, or that the risk(s) may have been identified but not taken seriously until an incident occurs. In other situations the risk is well known and procedures have been put in place but they are not followed properly. This is not something that is unique to the minerals industry – it happens throughout society. These behaviours are unacceptable. They lead to fatalities and serious injuries. They breach health and safety laws, our obligations under The AusIMM Code of Ethics, and our moral obligation to protect the safety of our colleagues.

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Why do we fail to identify and address health and safety risk?

There are many reasons why we fail to identify or to seriously address health and safety risks. Many of the reasons are cultural in nature, reflecting the dominant and accepted patterns of behaviour in a company or a community.

The reasons for failure to identify and address health and safety risks can include:

  • Lack of awareness of health and safety risks.
  • An inability to identify health and safety risks owing to a lack of skills or systems to assess risks.
  • At some mines workplace culture and practices discourage health and safety complaints, or discourage discussions to identify and find solutions to health and safety risks.
  • Where culture allows, the ‘boiling frog syndrome’ – gradually increasing risks
    go unnoticed and breed tolerance to danger and a lack of resolve to address known risks.

We all have clear legal obligations to identify and manage health and safety risks. Despite this fact, a failure to seriously address known health and safety risks can arise because of:

  • The influence of a common cultural feature in New Zealand and Australia
    that discourages ‘dobbing in’ other people and a distaste for whistle blowing and whistle blowers.
  • Fear of negative consequences (eg harassment at work and/or discontinuance of employment) for a person who raises a safety concern – especially where that concern relates to the behaviour of a colleague, supervisor or manager.
  • Tolerance or disregard of unsafe practices and warnings being unheeded, driven by a culture that valued production over safety – the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy concluded this was a pivotal factor in that case.
  • A perception that there is no money available for health and safety improvements.

For both of the lists above, a key contributing factor could be a simple (and potentially deadly) lack of awareness of our responsibilities as minerals professionals: our legal obligations under health and safety laws, or obligations as AusIMM members committed to the Institute’s Code of Ethics, and our obligations under company health and safety policies and procedures.

Health and safety can only be achieved if risks are identified and effectively addressed before an accident happens.

With respect to the issue of people fearing the consequences if they complain about a health and safety risk, it is important to note that health and safety regulators allow anonymous reporting of breached health and safety matters and have strong systems in place to protect ‘whistle blowers’.

It would not be appropriate (nor possible) for me to comprehensively describe the actions of an AusIMM member that might leave that person open to an investigation by the local health and safety regulator and/or a complaint under The AusIMM Code of Ethics. Examples would include a member who fails to take seriously a health and safety concern that a member of staff raises with them, ignoring company or site health and safety policies, or refusing to authorise the purchase of readily available safety equipment that would eliminate a known hazard.

Identifying health and safety concerns is the first step

Building a safety culture is something that I believe every minerals professional should be invested in. Through our own actions we need to be leaders within the minerals industry who are constantly vigilant to health and safety risks.

Identifying a risk to health and safety in the workplace is fundamental – you can’t manage risks that you aren’t aware of – but it is just the start. A risk that has been identified needs to be communicated and then eliminated or managed.

Health and safety laws around the world require that there should be systematic efforts to assess health and safety risks. If existing procedures to assess risks are not in place in your workplace, then you have a fundamental gap to deal with.

Behavioural and cultural norms are key here. As minerals professionals we should be actively engaging in risk assessment on an ongoing basis, and encouraging our colleagues to do the same. Having identified risks to health and safety, the next step is of course to manage that risk: eliminating it or reducing it as much as is practicable.

Building a safety culture is the key. We minerals professionals must play a leading role. The central importance of safety culture is nicely summarised in a New Zealand Government publication on mining safety: ‘Culture is key to improving health and safety in your organisation. A cultural approach doesn’t replace other approaches, like engineering and system improvements – but it underpins them and makes them more successful.’ (Government of New Zealand, 2013).

The AusIMM promotes and expects the highest professional and ethical standards of its members.

Avenues to address identified health and safety concerns

I think of the avenues to address a health and safety concern in terms of a hierarchy: starting close to home, and moving to involve external parties as necessary and appropriate to achieve the right outcome.

Taking action to eliminate and reduce a risk can sometimes be done quickly and simply, but most of the time it requires other people to take action to change work practices or to invest in new equipment. Understanding the avenues to address a health and safety risk that has been identified is therefore crucial to successful health and safety improvements.

In an ideal world, every health and safety risk will be quickly and successfully eliminated or mitigated by raising its profile within your workplace. This should always be the first place to raise concerns and expect action to address risks to health and safety.

The vast majority of health and safety risks are identified and managed at the workplace or company level, with no need to bring in third parties. This is as it should be, and we all have an obligation to raise concerns at this level and seek to have them addressed by those responsible for safety outcomes.

If you believe that a health and safety risk is not being adequately addressed, then you have a moral obligation to take action by raising those concerns through the appropriate channels. If issues aren’t being appropriately addressed within the workplace, then they must be taken up externally. In most cases the appropriate and logical first step outside your own workplace/company will be to raise your concerns with the health and safety regulator.

Sometimes that means needing to raise your concerns with the health and safety regulator (the health and safety regulator has different names in each jurisdiction, but they are commonly known as the ‘Mines Inspectorate’ or WorkSafe) so that they can be investigated and appropriate solutions put in place. For those of us working in leadership roles, this responsibility is even more focussed – under health and safety laws in New Zealand and Australia (and many other parts of the world) we have the legal obligation to protect our staff, and we must ensure that our superiors and colleagues take these issues seriously.

An additional avenue that may be appropriate in some circumstances is the AusIMM – using the complaints processes established by AusIMM By-Law 26. The AusIMM must accept and investigate any complaint received which alleges that an Institute member is failing to meet their obligations under the Code of Ethics.

I find it surprising that the AusIMM has never received a complaint alleging that an Institute member has failed to meet their health and safety obligations under the Code of Ethics or the law of the land. In a situation where an AusIMM member has failed in their duties to identify and/or manage health and safety risks, I believe that a formal complaint to the AusIMM against that member is a valid, albeit ‘last resort’ way of raising those concerns and maintaining compliance with the Code.

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A complaint to the AusIMM is not a substitute for raising concerns directly with the person and company responsible, or with the local health and safety regulator. It can be an appropriate additional avenue to ensure that AusIMM members are meeting their health and safety obligations under the Institute’s Code of Ethics.

An AusIMM complaint may also have the added benefit of raising awareness of the risks involved with other AusIMM members. If you have read the AusIMM compliance report for 2014 in this edition of the Bulletin, then imagine the impact on your thinking about the importance of health and safety as a professional ethics obligation if that article included an outline of one or more complaints relating to alleged health and safety failings by your fellow AusIMM members.

You may never have considered the AusIMM Code of Ethics as a source of obligation to protect the health and safety of colleagues and the community before. These obligations are clearly set out in the Code of Ethics. As members of the AusIMM we have each committed ourselves to protect the safety and wellbeing of the community and our colleagues in the minerals industry. We have also committed ourselves to understand and implement obligations under the laws of the land(s) in which
we work.

Community expectations for health and safety – in our industry and in every industry – have changed.

Where a complaint investigation confirms that an AusIMM member has breached their health and safety obligations under the Code of Ethics, a warning may be issued to the member. If the breach is considered beyond doubt to be significant it will be referred to the Ethics Committee which can lead to suspension or cancellation of AusIMM membership. The way the Complaints and Ethics committees investigate complaints and the range of possible outcomes from a confirmed breach of the Code of Ethics is explained in documents available on the AusIMM website.

The AusIMM promotes and expects the highest professional and ethical standards of its members. The AusIMM Code of Ethics represents the core values of the AusIMM. The AusIMM complaints process is a valid way to raise your concerns about the practices of an AusIMM member. It is not a substitute for the other readily available avenues to address health and safety risks outlined above, but it could be a very powerful additional tool in the pursuit of best practice in health and safety.

I urge every AusIMM member to give some thought to:

  • What are the health and safety risks that you see in your work?
  • What role do you play in building a safety culture – are you leading by example?
  • Do you have the right skills to confidently assess and address safety concerns with your colleagues, or do you need expert input to ensure their safety?
  • Are you confident that you are meeting your health and safety obligations under the law of the land and your AusIMM Code of Ethics?

Call to action

I believe that many AusIMM members lack a sufficient awareness and understanding of the requirements and obligations of members as set out in The AusIMM Code of Ethics. This extends to a lack of understanding that the Code of Ethics requires us all to implement best practice in health and safety in the way we operate as minerals professionals. It applies in the way our work affects ourselves, our peers, colleagues and staff, and the community more generally.

AusIMM provides avenues for us to explore best practice in these issues, and the opportunity to explore these issues in this Bulletin article is just one example of that.

I believe that workplace culture has changed. Community expectations for health and safety – in our industry and in every industry – have changed. Laws have been updated to reflect this, and they require us all to take greater responsibility to identify and address health and safety matters. In parallel, the expectations of us as minerals professionals to keep up with and implement best practice in health and safety are a clear obligation we each hold under the Code of Ethics.

I urge all members to take these issues seriously – to improve your own ability to identify and manage health and safety risks, and to take action to hold your peers to account when you see failings in their health and safety actions. Whilst any such actions are contrary to mining health and safety legislation, it is the local mining culture that needs to insist on follow-ups on safety and health recommendations or audit requirements. Some will be detected by the Mines Inspectorate but some will slip through.

Like any grievance procedure, reporting of any breach has defined methods on how to progress. Appropriate responses include discussing your concerns with the responsible people, reporting of incidents and risks within your business and/or to the health and safety regulator – and where necessary, as a last resort, lodging a Code of Ethics complaint with the AusIMM where you believe an AusIMM member is responsible for breaches of the Code’s requirements.

During our careers, most of us AusIMM members are likely to face ethical dilemmas at some stage. The AusIMM has a key role to play in supporting members to understand our ethical obligations and to provide networks and support that assist us in working through those dilemmas. It also has an obligation to deliver robust processes for investigating alleged breaches of the Code of Ethics.

As a member of the AusIMM Complaints Committee I can assure you that the AusIMM has robust processes to investigate future complaints about members failing to meet their health and safety obligations under the Code of Ethics.

Acknowledgements

This article has been written in large part in reflection of the lessons learned in New Zealand in the wake of the 2010 Pike River Coalmine Tragedy and ensuing Royal Commission of Enquiry.

This fact that the AusIMM Code of Ethics includes health and safety obligations was raised at the AusIMM Congress 2014: it was included in a presentation by Eric Garner, the Chair of the Complaints Committee, and was discussed by various congress delegates.

My thanks to the many friends and colleagues who have discussed these issues with me and helped me in developing this paper. 

References

Government of New Zealand (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), 2013. People come first: Building a strong health and safety culture in New Zealand mines, quarries and tunnels

Macfie Rebecca, 2013. Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died, AWA Press (ISBN 978-1-877551-90-1 [paperback], and ISBN978-1-877551-94-9 [eBook])

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