April 2019

Safety: our most vital resource

  • By Diane Smith-Gander, Chair, Safe Work Australia

As professionals, we all have a responsibility to be safety leaders and to foster a safe workplace for every worker in the resources sector.

In the resources sector, leaders have a vital role to play when it comes to making workplaces healthy and safe. And when it comes to safety, leaders exist at all levels of an organisation – and they wield a powerful influence on an organisation’s overall safety culture. 

Ensuring employers provide a safe workplace for their people is a big part of improving productivity and building a positive reputation – in fact, getting safety wrong can have the potential to destroy a company’s ability to be viable, let alone be successful. 

It is undeniable that workplace illness, injury and death are expensive. The costs accrue to individual workers who suffer, their families, the businesses that engage them and society at large with the ongoing costs associated with health care and treatment.

A safe workplace is an asset. There are clear costs to the investment to make your workplace a safe one – but it costs a lot more if you don’t.

Safe Work Australia (SWA) estimates that work-related injury and disease costs the Australian community $61.8 billion each year. Research conducted by SWA in 2014 shows that investing in work health and safety (WHS) can result in improved business performance.

In 2014, SWA commissioned a report by the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne called Workplace health and safety, business productivity and sustainability (2014). 

This report notes that it is essential for organisations to understand the cost of poor WHS to their specific business. This allows the business to make good investments in WHS practices and systems, which yield a positive economic return to the business and ultimately the community. An unsafe organisation has down time, injuries, incidents, equipment damage and poor morale. 

When organisations fail to effectively manage health and safety, they are four times more likely to lose talent within the next twelve months. The loss of key personnel in a business also brings into focus the indirect costs associated with productivity loss and the expenses associated with finding and training a suitable replacement.

The mining and resources sector

The scale and complexity of operations and equipment in the Australian mining and resources sectors is immense and varied. Operations range in scale from enormous mines owned by multinationals to small mines owned by single operators. Equipment ranges from basic hand tools to fully autonomous vehicles. There are open cut and underground operations. The range of materials and resources extracted is diverse and sites are just as varied. 

Adding to this complexity is that while there is high-quality and robust legislation for managing mining safety in Australia, there is no national consistency. Queensland and Western Australia have mining WHS laws separate to their primary WHS laws, while in NSW, South Australia and the Northern Territory, the WHS laws also apply to mining. Tasmania has supplementary legislation and Victoria has additional regulations within their Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.

Back in 2010, the Ministerial Council on Minerals, Petroleum and Resources agreed to what’s been called a ‘split model approach’ to mining regulation in an effort to resolve the impasse between the jurisdictions and create greater harmonisation of the mining safety legislative framework across Australia.

This ‘split model approach’ was developed by the National Mine Safety Framework and Safe Work Australia. Majority agreement was, however, not achieved for the preferred split model approach, resulting in the current regulatory environment.

In any case, great leadership is fundamental – without great leadership, you cannot run a safe operation no matter what the legislative or regulatory environment is. After all, running a safe and healthy workplace is not just about the legislative requirements. It’s ethical and sound business – in other words, it’s the right and smart thing to do.

Injury, fatality and disease data

The mining sector in Australia is one of the safest mining sectors globally, but it still has one of the highest rates of fatalities of any industry in Australia.

In the five-year period between 2012 and 2016, there were on average nine deaths per year in the mining industry. The overall fatality rate for the mining industry is 3.7 fatalities per 100 000 workers and the subindustry with the highest fatality rate was non-metallic mineral mining and quarrying with 13.6 fatalities per 100 000 workers.

Slides, cave-ins, falls from a height and vehicle incidents all contribute significantly to the number of fatalities in the mining industry. But the top two causes of death were being hit by falling objects (18 per cent) and being hit by moving objects (18 per cent). 

‘Each employee can have a powerful influence on the attitudes and behaviours of others and fundamentally guide an organisation’s safety culture.’

Muscular stress while handling objects contributed to the highest proportion (20 per cent) of serious claims in the mining industry. This is closely followed by falls on the same level (16 per cent) and muscular stress while lifting, carrying, or putting down objects (12 per cent of claims). Muscular stress with no objects being handled and falls from a height are also significant contributors to injuries experienced by people working in the mining industry.

On average, there were 1160 disease and illness claims lodged and accepted for compensation in mining between 2007-08 and 2016-17. More than one third (38 per cent) of all accepted disease claims were related to noise-induced hearing loss. Upper and lower back diseases accounted for 14 per cent of all accepted claims.

On average, 73 per cent of all accepted disease and illness claims were due to body stressing and sound and pressure – that is, exposure to a single, sudden sound, long-term exposure to sound, or an explosion. 

A typical serious disease and illness claim in the mining industry causes 9.7 weeks lost time and costs $24 500. These are very useful numbers in thinking through the business case for investments in hazard reduction.  Furthermore, it is important to recognise that the causes for these claims relate to areas where well-known controls exist, suggesting that prevention relies on leadership to motivate workers to use available controls.

Gathering health data is more complex than that for injuries and fatalities. There are issues around collecting disease data, such as disease latency periods, which in some cases can be decades, and multiple work and non-work contributors to developing a disease.

The most obvious diseases experienced by miners are the dust diseases – coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (aka black lung) and silicosis. 

Black lung and silicosis are insidious diseases that develop over many years. These have been known about for a long time, are preventable and were until relatively recently considered to be well-controlled. 

Leadership has a critical part to play here. For example, some companies do not have exit medicals and there is little and inconsistent follow-up after workers leave the industry.  Recent reports have suggested ensuring data from medicals is appropriately analysed can bring benefits.

Leading from all levels

Improvement can come from leveraging the leaders that exist at all levels of an organisation. There are those we recognise right away: board members, executive and non-executive directors, CEOs and chairs. But, everyone else in any leadership role is just as important when it comes to safety – site managers, frontline supervisors, team leaders, organisers and administrators and health and safety representatives. Some would argue these are more important!

Of course, each employee can have a powerful influence on the attitudes and behaviours of others and fundamentally guide an organisation’s safety culture. Ultimately, everyone should be a safety leader, responsible for ensuring workplaces are safe and healthy. And of course we have a duty of care to each other in the workplace. This is becoming very much a community expectation and part of any industry’s social license to operate.

WHS is a fundamental part of business decisions, activities and processes. Develop a safety culture at the highest level by putting safety as a standing item on the agenda of your board meetings and by reporting on WHS in your annual report. Leaders can harness the greatest resource they have by making safety a key aspect of their organisation’s vision. 

Fostering a safety culture 

Safety culture is reflected in what employees do when no one is watching. It’s what is believed is actually okay to do on the job. Safety leaders know they’ve succeeded when people are thinking about and engaging with safety as part of their everyday work, as naturally as they do their job, when no-one is monitoring them or forcing compliance. It is important to remember that the mining industry is diverse, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution to building an on-site safety culture.

Safety must truly be an organisation-wide conversation. Building a true safety culture means enabling a culture of inclusivity – where everybody talks about safety and everyone has a say in safety, from the leaders in the boardroom to the workers on the ground.

This means engaging workers in decision-making about safety and in the safe design of work practices. You ask them what makes them feel unsafe and you ask them to tell you what they think the best solution is. Engaging all workers in decision-making, and encouraging and valuing their participation, is critical for developing a robust safety culture throughout the company. 

Find ways to move the discussion away from compliance and allow everyone at the workplace to have a voice about what is working and how to do even better. It’s crucial that supervisors and managers feel confident that they can call a stop to work if anything is not safe and that they won’t experience repercussions.

Effective safety conversations are diverse and lead to solutions that not only improve productivity but move further up the hierarchy of controls to better control the hazard at the source and lead to safe design of work.

Make safety easy for your workers to understand and practice. Some questions to consider when developing your safety culture include:

  • Do your teams understand the safety control measures that are in place and why it is important for their health and safety for them to be applied correctly? 
  • Do your workers have the information they need to do their job safely every time?
  • Are your teams trained and licenced appropriately?
  • Is training regularly updated, and is it in a format that is accessible to them? For example, if your workers don’t speak English as a first language, complex safe work method statements in English may not be the best way.

Finally, invest in safe equipment that has been designed so that it is inherently safe to use.

Strive for continuous improvement through good work design

Remember that your safety journey never ends. 

Work, workforces, environments, machines, processes and people are always evolving and approaches to safety must be flexible to respond and remain relevant and effective. It’s a continuous cycle of improvement and innovation.

Designing hazards out of the workplace altogether is the most effective and durable way to build a safe workplace.

The concept of good work design acknowledges that the most effective design process begins at the earliest opportunity during the conceptual and planning phases. 

It’s up to us as professionals and safety leaders to set the example and teach our colleagues, workers, managers and clients about what good work design looks like in each of our workplaces. 


Safe Work Australia, 2014. ‘Workplace Health and Safety, Business Productivity and Sustainability’ [online]. Available from: www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1702/workplace-health-safety-business-productivity-sustainability.pdf

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