With a footprint of more than 50 plants, 94 operating terminals, and over 3,000 employees, Covia is one of the largest minerals and materials solutions providers in the industry.

In charge of keeping the workforce safe, Andy O’Brien oversees health and safety strategy and policy across the company.

Heidi Vella (HV): Please tell me about the company’s ethos and approach to operational safety?

Andy O’Brien (AB): We have an established program of policies, procedures and expectations monitored through a forensic “prove it” audit approach.

We also have established goals/objectives and key performance indicators, as well as leading and lagging indicators monitored on a near real-time basis. This is in addition to training programs, including FLS training, safety and health supervisor training, such as Safety Starts with Me programmes and Incident Cause Analysis Methods.

Overall, our policy is to empower employees through involvement, including safety and health committees, ergonomics committees, and annual workshops.

HV: In your opinion, what has been game-changing for improving industrial health and safety?

AO: The key technologies I think that have had a huge impact on health and safety are dust reduction technology, such as NIOSH Helmet-CAM, which increases awareness and transparency of information. As well as mobile apps for inspections because they provide better buy-in and participation from employees.

I also think our Covia TV is great, as it gives us an opportunity to reach employees on a continuous basis.  It is regularly used for incident alerts and targeted campaigns.

ICAM training is also great at focusing absent or failed defences and organisational contributing factors.

HV: Mines are arguably safer now than they have ever been but there is always room for improvement, what are the new threats?

AO: Millennials are entering the workplace and they bring a new set of challenges, especially as it relates to training.  They are substantively more tech savvy and need to be challenged more frequently.  They also have different attitudes.

Complacency is also an issue. As performance metrics continue to improve, we can let our guard down and possibly become too complacent when using advanced technology and automation, and we forget the fundamentals of health and safety.

I’d also say that aging miners are sometimes reluctant to change and accept new ways of thinking and working and are prone to an increased risk of strains, sprains and respiratory illnesses.

HV: It’s often said that people are the biggest hazard because they can lose concentration and become complacent, so how do you get people to consistently act in the safest way possible?

AO: It is paramount our staff always maintain focus so we provide daily engagement and a reinforcement programme through our Covia TV and toolbox talks, as well as periodic engagement with safety meetings and program campaigns.

In terms of keeping training interesting, we include testimonials from colleagues and game show trivia challenges during safety meetings. Covia TV and Apple TV also provide improved graphics, videos and web demos. We like to do product demonstrations as they are more hands-on and get external experts and trainers in to share their insights.

However, sometimes age distribution of miners is a challenge in training, as older miners have more difficulties with interactive or web-based training compared to millennials.

HV: Technology has made mines safer but for a company with a large number of staff and several big industrial sites, how challenging is it to adopt the latest safety equipment?

AO: To do it you must have top management support and be willing to invest money, which we are. We often take a phased approach; for example, for the Novacura and tablet implementation we started with a pilot, moved to larger sites and then filtered in to smaller sites.

It’s also important to have input from various departments such as safety and health, engineering, IT, operations, procurement.

HV: What are your plans for the year ahead for mining safety procedures or equipment?

AO: We plan to merge two of our solid programs into one, deploy mobile equipment for fall protection, focus on knowledge verification for training programs (i.e. competency-based training) and continue informal site visits and employee interaction to monitor program compliance and success.

HV: Going forward, what new developments could make mining safer in the future?

AO: Better visibility, increased automation and fatigue monitoring for mobile equipment operators. Plus, wearable technology and simulator training.

HV: To sum up, when taking a safety-first approach to mining, what are the main things every miner and organisation should keep front of mind?

AO: Individually, our families: we all work to support our families. Organizationally, doing everything possible to eliminate the risk of someone not going home to their family at the end of their shift. Finally, support MUST come from the top down.

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