From respiratory diseases caused by dust kicked up in underground operations to the impact of collapsing ceilings and malfunctioning machinery, mining continues to be a dangerous career for many of the workers on the front lines of one of the world’s most profitable industries.

The inherent dangers of the industry are amplified in countries where government regulation and corporate infrastructure are less developed. Strike action at Gold Field’s South Deep mines, for example, spiralled from industrial action to waves of violence and arson attacks, as the South African mining industry edges closer to a third successive year of increased fatalities at operations.

In response to these risks, scientists from Cardiff University, backed by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) conducted research into the relationship between the extent to which miners were empowered to participate in decision-making processes with regard to safety, and safety records, between 2016 and 2018. The study, ‘The role and effects of representing miners in arrangements of safety and health in coal mining: a global study’, investigated coal mines in five countries – Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia and South Africa – and found that greater worker empowerment and tighter regulations contributed to more effective occupational safety and health (OSH) practices.

Theoretical and practical OSH practices

The researchers conducted interviews and convened workshops with miners in the target countries to learn what they thought about OSH practices at work, and produced a literature review that assessed the regulatory framework in place around the workers. By reviewing these legal apparatuses in tandem with the experiences of individual miners, it became clear that, while all of the countries insisted workers participate in health and safety activities, Indian and Indonesian workers felt like these processes were largely meaningless, and were not contributing to the safety of operations as a whole.

“In India, while trade union representatives took part in inspections and participated in health and safety committee meetings at both mine and sector levels, they felt they had little chance of influencing the outcomes of those activities,” IOSH reported in a document outlining the results of the study. “Similarly, in Indonesia, although in theory there were trade union structures to address safety and health in the mines in which our participants worked, in practice they had little scope for autonomous action, and operational matters in OSH were entirely the prerogative of management.”

The study highlighted the disparity between the promised OSH protocols of companies and national governments, and the involvement of workers, leading to negligible improvements in safety for those workers. Mary Ogungbeje, OSH research manager at IOSH, said that many of the workers in the less developed countries felt “powerless, and without much influence.”

Ogungbeje went on to say that a combination of a robust OSH framework and proactive workers empowered to make decisions about their own safety is key to achieving safe operations. “One of the conclusions was certainly about the effectiveness of worker representation,” she said. “When they did have those kinds of powers, and they did have that setup in place, the conclusion was that effective worker representation supports positive occupational safety and health outcomes, and the greater perception of involvement, value and empowerment produces results that are going to be beyond the minimum demanded by the regulatory environment.”

Responsibility for safety

The study raised questions about where the responsibility for ensuring safe operations should fall. Professor David Walters of the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, who led the study, suggested that governments and companies are primarily responsible for ensuring good OSH practices, saying that “the legal responsibility for the work-related health and safety of miners lies appropriately with the organisations that operate mines, whether they are private or state-owned undertakings.”

However, the study itself revealed the top-down approach of countries such as India and Indonesia to be insufficient in ensuring worker safety; regulations alone are ineffective without worker support and involvement. Walters noted that effectively enforcing regulatory standards “may further require the co-operation of workers.”

Indonesia in particular has strict guidelines on mining safety incorporated into its law, covering risk management, employee health programmes and company regulation and assessment – yet 28 people were killed in Indonesia’s Grasberg mine, the world’s second-largest copper project, in 2013.

State-owned miner PT Indonesia Asahan Aluminium purchased Rio Tinto’s 40% stake in the mine in July 2018, despite the project’s poor safety history and widespread accusations of environmental mismanagement that have resulted in a reported 200,000 tonnes of tailings being dumped into local water sources every day. The mine has endangered both its workers and local residents, and in spite of government and company commitments to ensuring safety, the state is only becoming more closely tied to the project.

Ogungbeje argued that responsibility falls on all parties involved, from individual workers to national governments. “I don’t think responsibility should fall on one type of actor, each has a part to play, be it government of private companies or workers themselves,” she said.

She added that governments are integral in ensuring standards are maintained across companies within a country, and that safety standards and recognition of the importance of OSH practices need to permeate all levels of the mining industry.

Impacts of the study

IOSH plans to revisit the study in a year, and then again in five years, to measure its impact over a longer period of time. While soft criteria, such as the extent to which workers feel involved in the decision-making process with regards to OSH matters, are difficult to quantify, it is hoped the work will raise awareness of the importance of safety procedures, and the effect that involving workers in those procedures can have on operational safety. Ogungbeje said a key motivation behind the study was a lack of literature on the subject of worker engagement in relation to safety performance, which the work done by Cardiff University aims to rectify.

Walters is also optimistic about the involvement of other organisations in OSH practices in response to the publication of the study. “There has already been considerable interest in the study shown by mining unions both nationally and globally,” he said. “Global bodies such as the International Labour Organization and the International Social Security Association have also already indicated an interest.”

While industry operators and regulators have not yet shown a similar concern, the variety of groups to have already expressed interest suggests that a greater range of companies and decision-makers will be involved in OSH practices in the future. The study demonstrated that a lack of variety in viewpoints related to safety, and an exclusion of all relevant parties from the management process, can have negative consequences on an operation’s safety record. It is hoped the study will encourage positive steps towards improving OSH performance.