How do we break through the safety ceiling? Implementing more safety systems or procedures is not the answer … engaging our people is.

“More? Yes, we need to do more for safety!”

This is the current cry from the heart and lament of the friends, family and co-workers concerning the ongoing injuries and fatalities of mine workers. Our hearts go out to them, and their voices need to be heard. Something must be done, and urgently. But what?

Mining houses are already pouring millions into keeping their people safe. Is more personal protective equipment (PPE) the solution? Perhaps additional training, or extended toolbox talks are needed? While, in some places, this may be beneficial, in order to see significant change, I do not believe the primary focus should be on doing more.

Statistically, the safety improvements over the last decade have made a remarkable difference. The reduction in incidents is encouraging. In the early 2000s, more the 250 people were dying in the mining sector alone. Since 2003, apart from 2007 and 2017, there has been a steady decline.

Before we celebrate, in spite of all the safety interventions, more than 70 miners still die every year. That is fatalities only. If we start to add injuries and near misses the figures become worrisome again.

The statistics shouldn’t be what jolts us to attention, however. It is the fact that these are people, not figures. They are fathers, husbands, wives and mothers, friends and providers. They are individuals, who have dreams and desires for a better quality of life.

The current strategies have brought about tangible improvements. Be that as it may, they haven’t taken us to our desired goal. I understand this is a complicated matter and no “one thing” is going to solve everything. Very broadly speaking, the drive towards “zero harm” is based on having the right risk-management systems in place.

Lots of time and hard work goes into ensuring that the standard operating procedures are up to date. People have undergone the necessary training, risk assessments have been completed and safety briefings attended. There are piles of paperwork to prove that safety measures are in place.

Combined with having optimal systems, a substantial amount of money is spent on ensuring that the working area is as safe as possible through engineering, maintenance and housekeeping. Even with all this effort and expense, the reality is that the mining sector, like others, has hit a barrier. Something else is needed to break through the 70-fatality barrier.

Simply doing more is not the answer. It might be more valuable to examine the effectiveness and value of our current strategies, processes and activities. If we are candid, I wonder how much (of what is being done under the guise of safety) is actually working and making people more safe?

Disappointedly, I have sat in on safety briefings that if no one had attended it would not have made a difference. The same irrelevant topic is repeated. Ill-equipped safety officers run toolbox talks without the skills to facilitate the meeting in a meaningful way.

I have seen crews being allocated only five minutes to discuss the activities of the day, including the safety elements, before being rushed to start work. Who are we bluffing?

On the other side, I have had electricians tell me how it can take up to 45 minutes to do the required risk assessment to change a plug. Is that what will keep him safe?

While having world-class systems and engineering in place is moving us towards “zero harm”, will it get us there? The answer is a resounding no, and here is why . . .

The research by Gallup is startling. Worldwide, the loss in production income because of the lack of engagement of workers is US$ 9 trillion. I always laugh when people tell me what I am doing is “airy-fairy”. There is nothing fluffy about US$ 9 trillion – that is hardcore bottom-line stuff.

Companies often underestimate how much their managers and supervisors impact the overall performance and safety of their organisation. Gallup found that companies with higher levels of engagement with their people recorded a 37-percent decrease in absenteeism, 25-percent decrease in staff turnover, 60-percent fewer errors and defects, 21-percent increase in productivity and 22-percent improved profitability.

When looking a safety specifically, Gallup’s 2016 study (which included 1,8 million workers in 73 countries across 49 industries), revealed that Business units that had high levels of employee engagement also had 70-percent fewer safety incidents than those with low engagement levels.

That is massive, and it should get us to sit up and take notice. What company does not want to improve its safety record by 70 percent?

The number-one contributing reason for workers to be engaged, or disengaged, is their direct supervisor. The most momentous action any company can take toward to improving its safety culture is investing in its leadership capacity.

We have underestimated the impact leaders have on how their people approach work and safety. Gallup’s research spans over 30 years. These figures are not new, yet year after year they remain in the same range.

Despite us understanding the importance of leadership, a tremendous number of people are still given positions of authority because of their technical capabilities, without necessarily having the required leadership skills.

If we are truly serious about the safety of our people, investing in our leaders must become a top priority. Thanks to the breakthroughs in neuroscience, we have a better grasp of the of competencies effective leaders need to have.

Unfortunately, many of the off-the-shelf leadership courses just don’t cut it. We know that knowledge is not the main driver of behaviour, which is driven rather by attitude and beliefs. Having the ability to influence the beliefs and mindsets of workers is essential.

When it comes to the safety dynamic, other facts relating to how our brains work become crucial. When we understand, for example, that we have a very limited conscious processing capacity, then the way we facilitate meetings, give instructions and interact with workers, demands a new approach.

When it comes to having a robust safety culture, embracing a strategy that includes developing the neuro-leadership skills of staff – from supervisors to senior managers – is no longer a “nice to have”, but an essential ingredient.

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