Diagnosing the mining death toll: The link between workplace culture and safety

At the end of 2021, it was reported that mine deaths in South Africa had risen for a second consecutive year, increasing by almost 44% from 2020.

The sector, which employs more than 450,000 people, had experienced a promising decline in fatalities since 2007 (where its annual figures resided at the 200-person fatality mark) up until around 2016. Three years ago, it reached a record low before once again rising. Yet even at this record-low in 2019, the sector still averaged around one death per week.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy together with the Minerals Council South Africa cited falls of ground and transport-related accidents as the leading causes of death. The latter also announced a number of measures to tighten up safety protocols. Yet the question is, are there other internal factors at play that are contributing to a rise in incidents?

Arjen de Bruin, Managing Director at OIM Consulting, which specialises in the mining sector, believes that there is a significant link between workplace culture and safety. “Historically, the mining industry has been very diligent in reinforcing a safety culture, which is vital to the wellbeing of their people as well as their business operations.

“However, in our experience working with mines, we have noted that less emphasis is placed on the link between safety and the workplace culture as a whole, which also has a significant impact on the rate of lost-time injuries (LTIs).

He goes on to explain, “We’ve seen that if one is disengaged from their employer and the company values, they don’t embrace these values at the core of their beings, but rather ‘box tick’ according to a safety checklist.”

Disengagement causes accidents. A study by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organisation revealed that disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents and 60% more errors and defects.

“Absenteeism and presenteeism also contribute to a rise in LTIs. In these scenarios, workers are not purposefully completing their job functions, because they believe that their employer doesn’t care about them. They tend to be more careless, apathetic or complacent.”

De Bruin’s views are supported by a 2021 research paper from the South African Journal of Human Resource Management. The purpose of the study sought to examine the link between organisational culture and frontline supervisory engagement in enhancing organisational performance through resilient safety behaviour in mines. 

The key findings were that the tendency of a supervisor to hold themselves and their team accountable is positively correlated with good safety behaviour, with the report stating that “these results indicate that a significant influence exists between organisational culture, safety climate, supervisory accountability and safety behaviour.”

De Bruin highlights that in the mines OIM visits, the organisational culture is often removed from those on the ground. “Oftentimes, front-line workers are familiar with their company’s mission statement and purpose, but they have no idea how this translates into tangible action or behaviour.”

He notes that there is a lingering hierarchal culture that exists in mines, which creates a more disengaged workforce as miners do not feel trusted, heard or valued. “We need to move away from an autocratic style of leadership, to one that is more inclusive and collaborative. A collaborative leader engages their workforce but still takes accountability.”

The good news is that De Bruin says that it is possible to turn things around. He explains that in mines where OIM has rolled out its supervisory coaching programmes, they’ve seen a rapid decline in LTIs. In one mine, which had experienced an unusually high rate of LTIs in the months prior, the number of incidents dropped to zero upon commencement and for the duration of OIM’s programme. “An engaged workforce is your best defence when it comes to workplace safety,” he adds.

Establishing a Code of Conduct adds immense value. “This demonstrates how individuals need to work with one another. It says, ‘these are the behaviours we practise, and here’s how they integrate with the company’s values.’ Everyone needs to understand that they play a role in fulfilling the company’s mission.

“We talk about insight, influence and impact. A hierarchal leadership style doesn’t engage others or allow for their input. Leaders need to talk to the people on their ground to get different perspectives and draw insight from there. They need to understand their people and their complexities. When others feel heard, a leader has far more influence, and can make a greater impact; on productivity, on operations. And importantly, on safety,” he concludes.

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