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Overcoming mining's safety/productivity trade-off

The fatality rate in mining has reduced by an order of magnitude in the last 20 years, but it is now flatlining. Queensland Transport and Resources Committee hosted an inquiry into safety in the coal mining industry in February 2023. The Board of Inquiry primarily focussed on incidents of methane exceedance. It found 'the systemic cause was that the gas emissions generated by the mine's production rate were more than the capacity of the mine's gas drainage system". This interplay between safety and production is the classic safety productivity boundary problem identified by Rasmussen in 2005. A recurring theme in worker representative submissions is that while management espouses safety first principles, coal mines sometimes depart from established safety procedures to meet production expectations. For example, supervisors may knowingly ignore or contravene standard operating procedures to ensure maintaining production rates.

Mine management is putting substantial money and time into achieving better safety, but fatalities are not reducing. The initiatives include:

Operating models-formalising all aspects of work and ensuring that as much as possible is planned and controlled - (planned work is safer than unplanned work)

HRO (High-Reliability Organisation) principles are being implemented to adapt and adjust to risks faster. This includes efforts to improve safety culture and improve the flow of bad news.

Engineering controls to reduce risk exposure.

These are important strategies. But could there be an alternative way to improve the mining system's inherent safety that delivers more per unit of effort or cost while improving productivity?

Intuitively we know that addressing the root cause of a recurring trade-off provides a much more significant impact than dealing with the consequences or symptoms.

Better and faster results are possible when shifting the productivity/safety boundary outwards- that means more productivity at a lower workload and with more safety). To do this, we must recognise the Complex Adaptive System (CAS) nature of mines and change the system's characteristics so that production can flow faster with less variability. The time and capacity buffers we introduce to make this happen mean that there is capacity in the system to recover from operational surprises, production plans become more stable and time and attention are freed up for management and workers to adjust safely to the inevitable surprises in mining.

One way of doing this lies in applying the Theory of Constraints combined with a change platform (Flow Room) to create "superflow in a spirit of calmness".

Enabling breakthrough safety and productivity in mining
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