Vic Pakalnis

The accident rates for Ontario mines for 2016 are in. Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn announced in early January that the province achieved zero fatalities! This is an amazing accomplishment. The lost time injury (LTI) rate in 2015 was 0.63 per 100 workers. At the 2016 CIM Conference, the John T. Ryan Award was given to 10 mining companies with zero fatalities and zero LTIs. Is this just dumb luck or does it reflect the mining industry’s commitment to safety? I would argue the latter.

In Ontario in 1976, there were 19 fatalities, 12.5 LTIs per 100 workers, and accident rates were at 10.4 per 100 workers. Over the next 40 years, the mining industry undertook a massive change to its culture, technology and regulations.

The Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, headed by Dr. James Ham, rewrote Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act on October 1, 1979. The Act introduced the concept of the Internal Responsibility System, which formed the basis of the Act and the safety management systems still in place today. It outlines clear roles and accountabilities for workplace parties with direct and contributory responsibilities for health and safety. Some might credit improvements in technology. For example, increased mechanization and remote-controlled equipment have removed workers from dangerous locations within a mine site while proximity detection sensors have helped to prevent collisions, accidents and fatalities. In addition, mining methods, which are indeed considered technology, have evolved from square set mining to vertical retreat mining, which is far safer.

Another possible explanation is mandatory training for workers and supervisors in the province. In fact, Ontario was the first jurisdiction in Canada to require it through the Common Core program. Most jurisdictions around the world do not, and even those that do often only require workers and not supervisors to participate. Perhaps, it could also stem from the unique safety culture established in the mining industry that has every meeting start with a “safety share.” In the past, the industry took a fatalistic approach to safety. The mentality was that mining is a dangerous industry and accidents are just part of the job. This attitude has flipped 180 degrees to the point where some safety associations no longer even use the word “accident” as part of their vocabulary, as it implies that no preventative measures could have been taken to avoid such an event. Instead they prefer the terms “reportable occurrence” or “incident.” Whatever the reason, there has been a markedly positive trend over the past several decades.

Where are we going next? At the Zero-Harm German/Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Symposium in Sudbury in June, Germany’s International Social Security Association mining division will present its Vision ZERO safety strategy in one of the mining capitals of the world. Furthermore, at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2017 in Singapore in September, experts will search for sustainable systems to get us to zero-harm globally and to keep us there. The safety stream at this year’s CIM Convention includes industry experts from around the world who will share their experiences to this end.

The industry has good years and bad years, and some jurisdictions perform better than others, but while a certain amount of risk is always present, a risk that kills is unacceptable. Therefore, the global industry must commit to improved training, technology and management systems that will not only work today, but for years to come.

In the future, there will no doubt be setbacks, but Ontario’s zero fatalities reported in 2016 deserves celebration. Plus it answers the question, why did the chicken cross the road? To show the skunks it can be done!

Updated: An earlier version of this article referred to the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines as the "Royal Commission on Health and Safety in Mines and Mining Plants".

Vic Pakalnis is the president and CEO and MIRARCO as well as the acting vice-president of Laurentian University’s Laurentian Mining Innovation and Technology group.

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