Safety? What safety?

Safety? What safety?

Our new columnist reflects on the early days of his mining career, which began more than 40 years ago. Back then, safety wasn’t of much concern, as his narrative will show.

The other day I was thinking back on what has happened since the “good old days” at the very beginning of my career in 1981. Back then, I accompanied a miner as a learner official in the “stoping” and development stages of a mine shaft.

In  mining, stoping is the excavation of a series of steps or layers in the ground or rock. I recall walking with the elderly man as we went to the “drive”: a horizontal underground passage that follows the length of the vein or rock formation. The drive had been charged up with explosives; back then, it was the norm to light up each drilled and charged-up hole individually by hand. After he received permission to set off the charges, the miner lit the holes and we began walking to the nearest “crosscut” (the passage crossing the rock formation) for safety before the rounds went off. Looking back to the lit-up face, I could see excessive smoke being released into the air.

The miner then told me that we had to walk a bit faster, as the holes could go off “any time now”. This was rather concerning; we had only walked about 100m from the blast site! As we made it around the crosscut’s corner, the shots went off …

On another occasion a miner sent me to the start of a “raise” (a vertical or inclined excavation that leads from one level to another) to wait for a team leader. He explained that the team leader would set off some charged holes, and that I must wait for him. However, there was smoke all over the place as I arrived at the raise. Knowing the miner, though, I was aware that his instruction had to be obeyed. A few minutes later, the team leader appeared out of the raise. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied that he had gone to make sure that all the shots went off.

Measured against today’s standards, these actions seem extremely unsafe, but back then nothing much was communicated about safety; it was all about production and achieving set targets. Back then, “lost time” and “lost time incidents” weren’t emphasised, but fatality free shifts were regularly communicated (it is possible, though, that I was still highly production-orientated and didn’t take much notice of the aforementioned). Since the implementation of the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1996, however, safety has changed drastically.

After I completed my learner official course, I became a shift foreman/team leader, eventually moving to the safety side of the mining industry. My objective since then has been to reduce or eliminate incidents that could lead to persons being injured, loss or damage to property, or situations that could lead to an unhealthy working environment.

My question now is: How do we stop accidents completely? Is this just an objective that sounds good, or is it actually achievable?

In all my years in underground mining operations, I did not see this happen. While accidents were preventable for short periods of time, this was never done in a sustainable manner. At opencast operations and where employee numbers were limited, the eradication of accidents was, and still is, obtainable. But it takes a lot of effort, campaigns, time, and resources to reduce incidents and ensure accident rates come down. Over time, I saw this trend moving up and down. 

The attitude of employees is of utmost importance. A sustained, positive attitude and mindset are required, and a happy working environment is a major advantage. All the knowledge communicated at courses supports this. Examples include giving someone a pat on the back for a job well done in front of everybody, as well as private individual counselling for problems like poor working performance; bad attitude; transgressing rules, standards, and regulations; and so on. 

Important issues are usually communicated regularly and frequently. For example, if a miner or shift boss exits the workplace and heads to the office at the end of their shift, what are the first two (usually daily) questions they are asked? “Did you blast all your panels/working places?” and “How much stuff was pulled from your working places?” This is immediately compared to the objective and any shortfall is normally dealt with immediately.

I seldom (if ever) heard any questions asked regarding safety, such as: “Did you encounter any incidents today that could lead to somebody being injured?” or “Did you install the required support, and was the necessary preparation for the next shift done to ensure a safe working environment for them?” Not even, “Did you have an injury free shift today?” (referring to all employees for whom they are responsible).

Mutual respect for all employees is advantageous for achieving safety. Knowing your fellow employees’ names and additional information about their home lives and families will help. The employees have to feel like they belong to a family at work. 

Some of this may sound like “a pie in the sky”; to reap positive results takes a long time … But a happy worker with a positive attitude is a successful worker, who will not lose their focus on achieving targets (both production- and safety-wise). That said, there are numerous factors that hinder positive outcomes, such as lack of money or resources, a worker’s living environment, and the powerplay between unions. We can potentially elaborate on these in a future article.

They say safety and production go hand in hand, but perhaps equal effort is required to achieve both sustainably.

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Kobus de Klerk

Kobus de Klerk has worked in the mining industry his entire career, which spanned more than 40 years up to his retirement. He was a safety officer for over three decades at various leading mining companies in South Africa.
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