Safety Insights

Safety Share: Maintaining Good Health


The old adage says, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”; however, the reality of wellbeing for those who work in mining is a bit more complicated than that. Factors affecting wellbeing go beyond physical health, stretching to mental acuity and vigour, stress maintenance, a positive work culture and proper work-life balance, along with other diverse elements.

In addition to mine workers wanting to stay healthy, and operators wishing to keep them that way, there are facets some deal with that others do not. For example, miners in some regions of the world are more susceptible to illness – be it communicable diseases or due to a working situation that has been statistically proven to impact mental health, such as fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) scheduling – and have a greater risk of being affected simply due to location.

Subpar health often equals compromised safety for a miner, as well as those around him or her. In many ways, that also works in reverse: a mining operation without best practices in place, accident-prevention procedures and a true commitment to safety will compound the impact of those subpar practices on its workers.

According to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), around one in five people worldwide will experience a mental health problem such as depression or anxiety in any given year, and about 40-50% will experience mental illness at some point during their lives. Those are figures for the general population and not just mining; however, it places a glowing spotlight on how significant the issue is for the skilled workers of mines all across the globe.

MM spoke to several groups worldwide about their workforce wellbeing programmes, how operations can tackle the issue, how changing technology is playing a role in the success of wellbeing initiatives, and the levels of success some of them are realising by putting their ideas on miner health into motion on the work site.

Prioritising wellbeing

Mike Blake, who serves as the UK wellbeing lead for risk management advisory firm Willis Towers Watson (WTW), points out that the employee landscape is changing. Worker wellbeing is a bigger priority now than ever, pushing the mining sector to move in stride with the times.

“It is no longer sufficient to simply ensure appropriate controls are in place to comply with health and safety obligations and to mitigate long-recognised safety risks,” he says.

In fact, for effective management of worker absences, alongside recruiting and maintaining needed skill sets and propelling productivity gains, a culture must be created that includes recognition of a wider array of chronic and acute risks to worker health, as well as fosters inclusivity and promotes good mental health.

Blake also shares the results of the 2017 WTW Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, which revealed that more than a quarter, 27%, of polled employees worldwide had suffered with severe stress, anxiety or depression in the previous two years.

“Evidence has also shown that excessive stress can, in turn, lead to poor lifestyle choices – with highly stressed workers predisposed to having poor diets, exercising infrequently, having a greater tendency to smoke and experience sleep deprivation.

Miners in some regions of the world are more susceptible to illness – be it communicable diseases or due to a working situation that has been statistically proven to impact mental health

“Employers should not only be looking at how they can support their staff in case of stress and mental ill health but, as highlighted in our Mining Risk Review, they should also be looking to implement preventative control measures. These involve the establishment of appropriate working cultures to ensure issues are identified and tackled before they develop into more serious, longer-term problems.”

The question for many mines is, how can this be accomplished? There are still operations that grapple with the complex manager-employee relationship and having greater levels of trust within the hierarchy.

As Blake notes, creating an open-door environment is crucial, as it can aid in improving that relationship between management personnel and the workforce and allow for employees to be more communicative – leading to them hopefully raising concerns before work-related stress sets in. This, he adds, can also lower the propensity for stress-related conditions and long-term sickness absences, while better equipping managers to support their teams.

“Any shift in culture should be accompanied by a proactive approach to treatment that provides staff with access to continuous support and that also encourages a company-wide focus on wellbeing,” Blake explains, adding that there are employee assistance programmes (EAPs) that are cost-effective for an operator and can offer trained counsellors and other assistance 24/7.

WTW is seeing trends in this area, one of those being an increased use of technology-based resilience training to support employees with working life challenges.

In its Mining Risk Review, it recognised that creating the right teams for the future means mining companies “will have to recruit from much wider talent pools than the ones on which they have relied in the past”, though it added that the payback from such efforts could be significant.

“[Our study] found that workers who consider their employer to have a strong culture of health regard them as also having a good reputation and better able to attract and retain high-quality employees,” Blake says. “In fact, the ability to hire highly qualified employees was considered to be almost three times more favourable.”

Today, mines are also using data at greater levels for a number of elements of every working day. How much data, though, is too little, and how much is too much? When it comes to worker wellbeing, what types of details provide the best picture?

“Any meaningful and carefully targeted health and wellbeing strategy should be underpinned by an understanding of existing health-related business data,” Blake points out. “This business intelligence, which can include everything from sickness absence and benefit costs to claims metrics, can paint a picture of an organisation’s health risks and the extent to which these risks can be mitigated by changes in employee behaviour.

“Invariably, helpful health-risk indicators will be available to company HR teams or risk managers – either in the form of high-level estimates or detailed reporting data garnered over a sustained period of time.”

Even ranged estimations of some metrics can be useful; for example, figures could be benchmarked against average numbers across a nation or worldwide. With that knowledge in hand, an initiative can be developed that looks at those specific problem areas.

The topic of data use can be taken a step further, too, to the level of importance artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) technology have, and how the industry can best use this for positive change.

Blake notes that there has been rapid growth in technologies that have been designed specifically to support employee health, including but not limited to wearables, remote diagnostics, genetic testing and apps that promote wellbeing.

“The emergence of telemedicine services, for example, is now enabling employees to receive swift diagnosis and treatment plans without the need to take time off work,” he says.

“As next-generation workforces become increasingly accustomed to on-demand services, the demand for technologies to enable greater access, flexibility and convenience to employee health and wellbeing benefits will become ever greater. We can expect to see health and wellbeing benefit providers to continue responding in kind.”

What’s more is that those innovations will also likely be brought to the doorstep of mobile and remote workforces, such as FIFO employees.

“A glance to the horizon and we can expect to see a particularly important role for future AI systems. Research recently demonstrated, for example, how AI can help tackle lung disease by improving diagnosis of respiratory symptoms,” Blake explains.

“Developments in this space may help to support personalised healthcare in numerous ways, performing health assessments, offering healthcare advice, and assisting patients with chronic medical conditions and drug regime management.”

Family support

When it comes to mining operators in today’s industry, those not pioneering change in some way are those being left behind by their contemporaries. Rio Tinto is one operator with a dedicated focus on worker wellbeing.

The first is the miner’s announcement last year that it would offer support for its workers impacted by family and domestic violence. The package includes a number of measures for its North American staff or immediate relatives impacted by such situations in need of protection and support.

With the programme now in place, Rio Tinto workers have access to up to 10 days of paid extra leave, flexible hours, financial aid and emergency accommodation. In addition, the company has been providing training to equip its management and human resources teams with the skills to address these issues.

Supported by Michael Kaufman, co-founder of White Ribbon, a global campaign of men working to end violence against women, the initiative offers advice and services for implementing safety plans to protect at-risk employees at work. This includes security, new telephone numbers, screening or blocking calls and email protection, short-term financial assistance, access to 24-hour support services, and a range of specialised assistance.

Rio Tinto Aluminium chief executive Alf Barrios says this “significant step” by Rio Tinto has allowed it to “really step up to play a role in addressing domestic and family abuse”, an issue for communities across the globe.

“We all must play a role in ending it,” he adds. “The safety and wellbeing of the people who work with us is our number one priority at Rio Tinto and this extends to the home. For families affected by domestic or family abuse, having a supportive workplace can be a lifeline at a very difficult time. We hope taking this step will not only protect and support people in need, but help to educate and drive change in attitudes towards abuse.”

Rio Tinto has adopted a new global minimum and paid parental leave benefit for all employees

The second wellbeing initiative Rio Tinto has taken on in the recent past is its adoption of a new global minimum and paid parental leave for all employees.

The programme, which first became a Rio Tinto standard in 2017, standardises a policy for its workers that usually varies from country to country.

Now, all eligible workers receive 18 weeks of paid parental leave at full pay following the birth or adoption of a child.

“To allow new parents maximum flexibility, 18 weeks’ leave will be granted to an employee designated as the child’s primary caregiver – it is not gender specific,” the company says, adding it is also irrespective of relationship status. “Employees who elect to be the secondary caregiver will receive one-week paid leave in the first year following birth or adoption.”

Additionally, individuals who give birth but choose to be the secondary caregiver will receive paid medical leave under their relevant benefit plans, and those taking paid parental leave can focus on family duties knowing their job will be protected while they’re away.

The minimum standard can be utilised at any of the miner’s locations globally, and those who reside in countries where the regulatory standard exceeds the policy will not see a reduction in their entitled time.

“This new approach reflects our values as a company, particularly our focus on the wellbeing of our people and improving the diversity of our workforce,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques says.

“To attract and retain the best people we need to provide a work environment that supports all families and offers new parents flexibility regarding early childcare choices.”

People at the core

Employee wellbeing is a core focus for Canadian-based miner Dundee Precious Metals (DPM), according to communications specialist Gergana Todorova.

“We at DPM and our Bulgarian subsidiaries measure our success by the motivation of our employees to come to work each day, work safely and achieve results with optimised costs,” she says, pointing to the company’s performance – in safety and elsewhere – at its properties over the 2018 calendar year as evidence of that.

“People are at the core of everything we do at Chelopech and Krumovgrad, and the health and wellbeing of every single person is of utmost importance to us,” Todorova says, adding that 2018 was full of dynamic activities, ambitious plans and significant changes – spotlighted by its target production achievement at the Chelopech operation.

Overall, it’s been a busy year for the miner, from the launch of development work at its Ada Tepe (Krumovgrad) project early this year and the subsequent first gold concentrate production.

A central focus of the miner’s wellbeing and safety efforts is its continuous work on a zero-harm culture. “The health and safety of employees is of paramount importance at DPM,” Todorova says. “In addition to our internal policies and standards, we also comply with strict and rigorous national health laws and safety standards in all jurisdictions. All of our operations have occupational health and safety managers and committees that conduct regular safety meetings and inspections that suit the needs and requirements of each individual site.”

Each year, the Bulgarian trade union KNSB organises a mining industry employee sports event, at which Dundee Precious Metals workers participate

The company’s health initiative, ‘Because I Care to be Healthy’, has been a success in particular at its Chelopech operation, where it has introduced mountain hikes to adjacent villages, cycling tours to and around local towns, as well as healthy eating initiatives.

“The canteen on-site offers freshly squeezed juices and lower fat and salt content menu items,” she says. “Some of our employees have positively changed their healthcare and started sports activities. A number of employees say they quit smoking following the number of lectures by the company doctor and diet consultants.”

DPM employees also undergo medical checks each year as part of their health programme, and the miner has found in its comparison evaluations between 2014 and 2018 that there has been improvement in health parameters such as cholesterol and blood pressure. During those checks, a number of educational sessions have previously been offered, including testing for high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, drug use, allergies, tuberculosis and more.

“Several years ago, the company initiated and ran a safety project where the employees became actors and talked about the importance of going home safe through interviews with their spouses and children,” Todorova says of the company’s efforts to extend health benefits to miners’ families.

The videos for ‘Because I Care’ are available internally to employees or to anyone through the company’s social media channels, with employees talking about their hobbies, and sharing their experiences and ideas about work-life balance and workplace safety.

The camaraderie among the mining workforce typically transfers well into sports, and vice versa, and using that knowledge DMP has established its own sports teams to support more active lives.

“The company cooperates with a combined sports facility in the municipality of Chelopech, and in Krumovgrad, it donated to the reconstruction of the stadium to allow employees to go there for sports. This way, the company provides the opportunities for people to practice [hobbies] outside of work,” she explains.

Each year, the Bulgarian trade union KNSB organises a mining industry employee sports event, at which the company participates. The event usually attracts teams from a number of companies around the country, and they compete in a selection of sports, both individually and in teams, and every four years there is an international event.

Finally, Dundee has a company-wide programme for healthy habits, involving teams of 10 that each have a weekly goal that they strive to meet.

“Individual best performers or teams are stimulated, and the web-based platform provides tips for healthy food and more exercise,” she says. “The Namibian teams of Dundee Precious Metals Tsumeb are very active on this challenge.”

Roadmap to safety

The US National Mining Association’s (NMA) communications senior vice president Ashley Burke spoke to MM about the success of its safety programme. Because good miner safety goes hand in hand with good miner health, the industry advocacy group has had a role in improved performance for miners across the US – and has been sharing its ideas globally.

NMA’s CORESafety initiative launched in 2012 and is a partnership led by its members.

“CORESafety’s approach to safety and health emphasises accident prevention and uses a risk-based management system anchored in leadership, management and assurance,” Burke explains. “The framework is designed to go beyond what is required by regulations, focusing on a goal of continuous improvement. Its objective is zero fatalities and a 50% reduction in mining’s injury rate within five years (0:50:5) of implementation.”

Despite the high-level goal, CORESafety has gotten results. In fact, in 2017, companies participating in the CORESafety system closed the year with zero fatalities across US operations.

The CORESafety Safety and Health Management System (SHMS) incudes 20 modules, developed by mine safety experts, that also have a rapid turnaround for completion, giving US mines an efficient pathway to achieve the end goal of 0:50:5.

The National Mining Association’s CORESafety programme has become one of the more comprehensive long-term initiatives in the world. Photo: NMA

“While CORESafety provides a common roadmap and a common language to achieve 0:50:5, it does not specify the details of each company’s system,” she notes. “Rather, company systems should be designed to be functionally equivalent to the CORESafety SHMS, taking into consideration each company’s unique operations, management structure and culture.”

Participants in the initiative commit to the programme by agreeing to implement a functionally equivalent version of CORESafety at their respective operation/s and submit to NMA annual self-assessments of progress. Should the company elect to become certified or maintain CORESafety certification, it agrees it will complete a thorough third-party assessment of its safety and health management system. This, Burke notes, will verify that it is functionally equivalent to CORESafety.

There are currently nearly two dozen CORESafety participant companies, several of which have a global presence; among them are Rio Tinto Minerals, Barrick Gold of North America, Consol Energy, Morton Salt, North American Coal, Arch Coal, Teck American and Stillwater Mining.

A large handful of companies have also successfully earned CORESafety certifications, including Cloud Peak Energy, Couer Mining, Dyno Nobel, Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, Hecla Mining, Newmont Goldcorp, Peabody Energy, Kinross Gold and Prairie State Generating Company’s Lively Grove mine.

Burke explains that the framework of the programme has four basic steps, with each designed to continue to refine and improve upon what they learn and do in the start-up phase. The steps are to gain systems knowledge, define the system, develop the basic structure, and assign.

With a ‘buy-in’ from mining crews needed to make the initiative successful for any mine, it begs the question of how that buy-in is achieved, and, in an industry known for its resistance to change, whether there have been problems getting that buy-in.

Getting everyone ‘all in’, as some say, was a team effort, Burke reveals.

“The enthusiasm and professional commitment of the safety professionals who helped develop CORESafety were invaluable to the overall effort. They believe they are making a real contribution to mining safety — an opportunity they didn’t want to pass them by.

“NMA was fortunate to have a CEO-level task force made up of mining executives from all aspects of US mining. They were committed to an objective analysis of the shortcomings of the existing programmatic approach to mine safety and health and to finding an approach that would achieve measurable results.”

With 250 members in its fold, the NMA has made some significant strides in the area of miner safety and health goals. It notes that, over 18 years, the dedication of its membership has returned a 54% cut in the rate of injuries in US mines and a 55% reduction in the fatal injury rate.

Whether the mine taking on the challenge is starting fresh or accommodating CORESafety into its own existing programme, Burke points out that the initiative bridges the gap in a positive way.

“Companies and individual operations within companies will adopt and implement CORESafety at a different pace; for some, various aspects of CORESafety may already be in place,” she explains.

“In fact, some companies have extensive safety and health management systems in effect. Other operations may have a gap in the culture needed to effectively embrace a management system. Despite those differences, all participating companies believe they have more to learn and more they can do to achieve the 0:50:5 goal.”

NMA, even with its sizable strides to date, still has some work to do in the field of safety.

“We continue to enhance and engage through our digital platforms and by releasing monthly episodes of CORESafety TV, creating infographics and fact sheets for mining operations, and sending e-communication mailings to certified companies,” she notes. “In September, NMA will recognise top performance in US mining safety through its [annual] Sentinels of Safety Awards.”

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