By Alex Pires and Paul Vorster (of JVR Consulting Psychologists) Safety is an important consideration for organisations. This is especially true for mining, construction and transportation industries. In the mining industry costs are incurred every year due to work stoppages, accidents or unsafe work environments. A mining company in South Africa lost 95 full production shifts and 73 partial production shifts due to safety related stoppages in 2009 alone (AngloGold Ashanti, 2011). These work stoppages may be caused by human error, acts of nature, equipment failure, or poor management. The number of possible causes of work stoppages and accidents are too numerous to discuss here.  Recent research completed at JvRC investigated the possible causes of work stoppages in mines by analysing work stoppage narratives (Section 54’s, inspector reports etc). Work stoppages due to a safety infringement can be extremely costly (DTI, 2011). It is important therefore, to investigate the possible reasons for work stoppages. Research completed at a leading mine in South Africa showcases the following aspects as being most directly responsible for mine stoppages:

  1. Human Management Functions: These are related operational, supervisory, training, development, knowledge, quality control, and adherence aspects followed by the organisation on a management/operational/human/workforce level.
  2. Environmental Conditions: Any, and all, environmental variables which impact on production and safety. This includes mud, illumination, ventilation, temperature, safety, dust, chemicals, and so forth. Human hygiene issues such as a clean and pleasant environment also form part of this theme
  3. Equipment and Maintenance: This is any aspect related to the upkeep, issuing, condition, availability, shortage, checking, and use of equipment. This equipment may include mobile or heavy machinery, struts, jacks etc.
  4. Accidents: These are any accidents which occur within the mine and are related to human judgement and decision making; accidents which are unrelated to people and their influence (acts of God); and finally those calamities which may occur due to human management functions.

The frequency distribution of these themes can be viewed in Figure 1

Figure 1 Causes of Mine Stoppages

According to the thematic analysis completed at JvRC with mine stoppage narratives, it can be noted that most of the reasons for the closure (or possible closure) of a mine may be related to human management functions (45%). Only 3% of mine closures are related to accidents. These findings suggest that human behavioural components and their causes and effects are the most responsible elements for possible mine stoppages. It may therefore be prudent for mines to consider not only equipment and environmental concerns, but to also focus on human behavioural components as a leading cause of work stoppage. This research shows that the human management function is composed of numerous factors. They include:

  • A lack of safety awareness and safety training of workers (or non-adherence to this training)
  • Non-adherence to safety policies and procedures (either knowingly or unknowingly)
  • Standardised policies procedures and systems which may not exist, or which stifle mine safety (or non-adherence to such procedures)
  • Poor reaction by workers to training and induction regarding safety policies, procedures and experience (or a knowing contravention of policies presented at inductions and trainings)
  • Poor knowledge of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) and safety codes of practice
  • Poor management, supervision, and instruction of mineworkers (or a lack of adherence to management control)
  • Poor quality control of work, systems and equipment.

  These aspects all lend themselves to a work environment where work stoppages are prevalent. Although many mining organisations advocate the use of many policies, procedures, systems and control measures regarding safety; these measures are still unable to ensure that workplaces are safe. Work stoppages and accidents may therefore, not necessarily occur due to a lack of policies and procedures, but may be related to the actual adherence to these control measures by workers and management. It is possible that non-adherence to safety systems and procedures is more related to attitude, personality, cognition and culture; than a failure of control mechanisms (policies and procedures). Mineworkers may choose not to adhere to policy (attitudes); have an inborn preference for breaking rules or being inattentive to detail (personality), have inferior cognitive processes (cognition); or may work in an organisation where safety culture is not entrenched. Regarding attitudes, mineworkers may display a lack of respect for supervisors, shift bosses, and managers. This lack of respect for superiors may cascade into possible policy and procedural infringement. It may also be that many mineworkers are pushed to be productive thereby having a ‘gung ho’ attitude to safety. This poor attitude to safety may thus be related to safety culture at work. In both official and unofficial safety culture processes at mining companies; mineworkers may feel that productivity, bravery and work ethic are more important than a safety focus. Therefore, culture is an important factor regarding mine safety. Alternatively, personality variables such as conscientiousness (being prudent and paying attention to detail) may be lower in these mineworkers. Conscientiousness has been proven to relate to risk aversion (Wallace & Vodanovich, 2003). The more conscientious an individual is, the less likely they are too engage in risk prone behaviours, break rules, or bypass detail in their environment (Wallace & Vodanovich, 2003). These factors are very important regarding policy adherence and safety. Therefore, the more conscientious a worker is, the less likely they are to be involved in risky behaviours which may result in accidents. Conscientiousness is also related to authority attitudes where conscientious mineworkers adhere to rules and authority to a greater degree (Wallace & Vodanovich, 2003). Wallace and Vodanovich (2003) have also discovered that cognitive lapses (poor decision making or a lack of cognitive ability) may moderate the effect of conscientiousness. Mineworkers who lack cognitive ability may therefore pay less attention to important safety related cues in their environment making them more prone to accidents and policy contravention. Alternatively greater cognitive ability and a lack of cognitive failure may reduce the likelihood of risky behaviours, especially if conscientiousness is low. It is thus important for modern organisations (especially mines) to seek alternative methods of assessment for their workers. In most mines, where psychomotor assessment is a mainstay, alternative methods of employee assessment are often overlooked. It may be prudent, beneficial, and commercially important for mines to include the assessment of attitudes, personality and cognition to stifle accidents and work stoppages in the future. If you require further information and guidance with your safety related concerns please do not hesitate to contact either Alex Pires (alex@jvrafrica.co.za) or Paul Vorster (paul@jvrafrica.co.za). References AngloGold Ashanti (2011).Financial statement: year in review. Retrieved from http://www.anglogold.com/subwebs/InformationForInvestors/Reports09/AnnualReport09/review_za.htm Department of Trade and Industry (2011). Mine Health and Safety Act No. 29 of 1996. Wallace, J. C , & Vodanovich, S . J. (2003). Workplace safety performance: Conscientiousness, cognitive failure, and their interaction. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 8(4), 316-327. [photo by: Chris Corbett]  

JvR Consulting Psychologists is a firm of professionals who deliver evidence-based solutions in specific areas, including Psychological Assessment, Skills Development and Process Consultation. We help organisations, teams and individuals to navigate complexity and ambiguity, to manage themselves effectively and efficiently, and to foster constructive relationships with others. [JvR Consulting Psychologists]