Mining remains one of Australia’s most dangerous occupations, although deaths and serious injuries have shown a steady decline over the years.
However, according to Safe Work Australia, the number of fatalities in mining has nearly doubled from five in 2012 to nine in the year to date at time of writing.
While this is still significantly lower than the country’s top two most dangerous industries – transport, postal and warehousing (49) and agriculture, forestry and fishing (48) – it remains a concern.
This is particularly true as mining was one of the few sectors where deaths rose in 2013 compared with last year’s figures.
So what part do human factors play in mining engineering safety in Australia? And what can be done to overcome these issues?
Human failures occur in all businesses, but the consequences of these mistakes are far more serious in industries where people’s lives are at risk.
Many organisations separate human failure into two distinct categories: inadvertent (errors) and deliberate (non-compliance).
Typically, these can be either action-based or thinking errors, depending on the mistake made.
Action-based errors usually occur when attention is diverted from familiar tasks or there is a short-term memory lapse that results in a function not being performed properly.
Thinking errors tend to be decision-making failures or lapses in judgement, although they can also happen when an action is carried out properly, but it is the wrong course of action.
As the name suggests, this refers to the deliberate deviation of rules or regulations, such as cutting corners to save time and effort or misguided attempts to appease management.
Non-compliance can be separated into three categories: routine, situational and exceptional.
Routine non-compliance refers to work environments where it has become accepted that rule-breaking is part of the culture, which is often reinforced by poor oversight.
When deliberate human failures are situational, it usually involves workers trying to complete difficult – sometimes impossible – tasks within a certain budget or timeframe, making non-compliance the only option.
Exceptional non-compliance is when an employee attempts to solve a one-off problem by taking a calculated risk, such as delaying a plant shutdown in an emergency to prevent a halt in production and finish a project.
There are a number of ways mining organisations can limit human failures within their operations by identifying and managing problem areas.
Human error will occur, even with effective oversight and training. Therefore, managing human failure should remain central to any safety management system.
Mining is a labour-intensive industry where fatigue is common. Recognising and tackling this issue can prevent errors from happening.
Getting workers involved in the design process for tasks and procedures not only boosts morale, it can highlight areas where management may miss potential safety risks.
When problems arise, it is important to evaluate what happened in depth. If it is a human error, identify the reasons behind the failure to learn more about faulty processes.
Risk assessments should identify problem areas, assess what performance factors could make a safety breach more likely and what control measures could be implemented to prevent them.