Why Aren't Fatality Rates in South African Mining Falling Anymore?
The Twenty-Year Trend
South Africa recorded 285 mining fatalities in the year 2000, by 2018 this number had fallen to 81. Despite the improvement, 81 fatalities remains an awfully high figure. The United States recorded 27 fatalities in 2018, Australia just 2. While direct comparisons are contestable, the overwhelming gap is undeniable no matter how we split the numbers. Australia, at a constant per capita fatality rate, would require a population of 1 billion to equal the nominal 81 deaths.
A Deeper Dive
Despite the improvement over a 20-year period, when we dig in to the most recent figures a disturbing trend emerges.
The trend line for the past 5 years is at best flat and most probably upward sloping. This is worth reiterating - more people are dying now than at any point in the past 5 years.
We can draw one very important conclusion from this trend. What got us here, won’t get us to Zero. The low-hanging fruit in the industry has been picked and to push this trend downward requires a new approach to how we train. It also requires a new perspective on how we use technology, not as a fail-safe solution to eliminate human error, but as a way to enhance decision skills in complex scenarios when technology and procedures are not enough.
Better Technology (Job Easier) or Better Skills (Better People)?
In a broad sense, there are two levers at our disposal to reduce fatalities. We can make the job easier (better processes, technological improvements) or we can train people to make better decisions (cultural change, experiential learning, expertise development).
The dominant mindset in mining is that we can use technology and processes to make the job so easy and simple that nobody could possibly make a mistake. Effectively, the story goes, if everybody followed the procedures (we taught in that 150 slide PowerPoint) and consulted the “intelligent” tech at their disposal, we wouldn’t have any issues. Once people are formally inducted, every safety breach is viewed as a failure to adhere to protocol.
The underlying claim here is that human decision-making is an inherent risk, and procedures and protocols help reduce that risk. This thesis holds under three strict conditions: 1) All risks in an operating environment are known, 2) Procedures perfectly mitigate every known risk and 3) Procedures are perfectly selected and applied to every known risk
In reality, no working environment adheres to these conditions. Even if we had perfect procedures (we don’t) in a perfectly stable working environment (there isn’t one) we would be relying on human decision making to connect the perfectly forecast problem with the perfect procedure.
What we see here is an interconnectedness between our procedures, our people and our working environment. Our ability to mitigate risk in an environment is only as strong as the weakest link in this chain. The perfect procedure misapplied, a problem misdiagnosed, and our model of a risk-free environment falls apart.
Journey to Zero Harm
We believe that reducing the fatality rate in the mining industry requires a mindset shift to address decision making. Due to the overemphasis on technologies and procedures, the industry needs a correction by developing a new approach to human factor risk.
Rapidly exposing operators to situations is the key to accurately linking our procedures and technology with our working environment. Virtual Worlds allow us to place participants in an environment that replicates their decision environment, allowing them to encounter high consequence decision scenarios. This creates a safe space for them to fail and learn with none of the consequences of real-world failure.
Experiences that might otherwise take a decade to accrue can be simulated in just a few hours. The result is a workforce with a level of experience well beyond their time in the industry. This empowers participants to take ownership over the safety of their environment, creating a pro-active approach to a volatile working environment.
Nobody should die at work and this journey begins with empowering human decision making, not dismissing it.