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Stagnant safety and productivity– common root cause and solution?

Miners are under constant pressure to improve Safety. After years of fatality reduction, progress is now stagnant. We are in a difficult space -long periods of stability punctuated by sudden jumps in fatalities.

In “Do Safety Differently”, Todd Conklin and Professor Sidney Dekker identify an early safety belief that accidents and deaths are primarily caused by worker error - not following the (near perfect) procedures and rules. But, from the dramatic impact of work to rule strikes, it is clear that procedures and regulations cannot consider all aspects of work. “work as imagined” by management and the actual “work as done” is different. We have to rely on the ingenuity and adaptation of workers to get work done safely. And this adaptation becomes more problematic when the periodic work demands on our system exceed the capacity available.

Once we have created a low Lost Time Injury (LTI) environment, Safety Differently states that building the system’s capacity to operate safely (de-risk the system’s performance) is the best way to improve Safety. Part of doing this is by dealing with the gap between "work as imagined" and "work as done". Safety Differently bridges this with interventions such as learning teams and decluttering exercises (Kelvin Genn), getting input from workers to make work safer.

But there is a second critical area that Safety Differently highlights. We need to ensure that the capacity in the system is sufficient to deal with the demand, especially during intermittent periods of peak demand. And in mining, we have gone through 20 years of getting rid of excess capacity and material buffers to become more efficient. This approach leads to the creation of balanced capacity production chains, hoping that high efficiency can be achieved in all parts of the chain. In practice, the high variability and interdependency in mining interact with balanced capacity chains causing unstable production flow at lower output. This instability puts pressure on frontline management and workers to quickly adapt to changing conditions, and sometimes the demand exceeds the capacity available. (Mining experience around “planned work is safer work” shows why this is problematic). We end up with lower production, lower efficiency, more pressure to perform and less inherent Safety (greater risk) in the system.

We can address the root cause of these issues by working towards achieving “superflow in a spirit of calmness” in our operations. And we do this by considering spare capacity and material buffers not as waste but as “protective capacity” and then running our bottleneck at maximum capacity. In this manner, we decrease cost/ton, increase productivity, improve the inherent Safety in mining operations and free up the time and attention of our managers and workers.

This is easy to do if we are willing to look at our operations through new eyes.

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