April 2016

Book Review: Ten pathways to death and disaster

  • By Michael Quinlan Reviewed by Michael Tuck MAusIMM, Associate Professor, School of Engineering and Information Technology, Federation University Australia

This book seeks to answer questions such as: why do mine disasters continue to occur in wealthy countries when major mining hazards have been subject to regulation for well over 100 years? How can this problem be addressed as part of work organisation, regulation and policy?

The book has been rigorouTen pathways to death & disastersly researched and the original research concentrates on five countries to analyse and answer the questions posed. By analysing disasters (defined here as three or more fatalities) and other fatal incidents in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA the book finds that there are ten pattern causes which repeatedly occur in mining incidents as well as in other industries.

In Chapter One, Quinlan provides some background to the issues, defining the terms disaster and the meaning of disaster in the context of work. He also makes the point that whilst these attract public scrutiny, they are rare events and work-related fatalities cover a much wider range such as single fatalities and fatalities from work-related diseases. The chapter concludes with the methodology of the research which is well grounded within health and safety literature.

Chapter Two continues to set the context by examining the regulatory frameworks in the five countries for the period 1970 to 2011. Chapter Three then analyses fatal mining incidents in the five countries for the period 1975 to 2011 and shows that there are ten pattern causes which recur repeatedly in these incidents, these being one or more of the following:

1. engineering, design and maintenance flaws

2. failure to heed warning signs

3. flaws in risk assessment

4. flaws in management systems

5. flaws in system auditing

6. economic or reward pressures compromising safety

7. failures in regulatory oversight

8. worker or supervisor concerns that were ignored

9. poor worker or management communication and trust

10. flaws in emergency and rescue procedures.

Chapter Four shows that these same patterns can be applied to other high hazard industries and that mining is not a special case. In Chapter Five Quinlan explains the patterns and provides some practical tools for action. He also discusses best practice and how one can learn from failure. In the final chapter, emphasis is on the broader policy implications of learning from failure. Particular emphasis is placed on the role of the political economy, internal government processes, interest groups and the failure of organisations of all types to learn.

The book is an interesting read and if it achieves nothing else is a good snapshot, especially for the five countries used in the analysis, of what has been achieved since 1970. The book shows that there is no single method of achieving zero fatalities in the mining industry, and that fatalities – whilst important – are not the only metric that needs to be considered. Near miss or near hit events are also important.  

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