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Safety play: Why mines must stay across emerging technology

Technology is playing an increasing role in risk management and minesite safety, and the onus is on business leaders to keep up.

Those who don’t risk leaving holes in arguments that they took reasonable steps to create a safe workplace, should an accident occur.

Western Australia’s new Work Health and Safety Bill, which is presently being drafted, will replace the Mines Safety and Inspection Act, with the intent of modernising legislation to bring it in line with the rest of Australia.

Lauren Shave, a senior associate with law firm Gilbert+Tobin, says the new legislation will recognise that responsibility for workplace health and safety is often shared across operators and individuals.

“The new term ‘PCBU’, that is Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking, potentially radically expands the roles within an organisation to whom liability might attach,” she said.

“There is a new obligation to consult, co-operate and co-ordinate activities with others such as contractors and sub-contractors, who have a duty in relation to the matter in question. There is also a duty to consult with workers who are likely to be affected by an issue relating to work health or safety.”

Ms Shave says if the draft regulations are adopted in their current form, then it seems likely that the term “registered manager” may be replaced with “site senior executive.”

“The draft regulations highlight that the function of the site senior executive is to provide control and management of the mine and its operations, and deal with any emergency at the mine,” she said.

Cannings Purple Chief Executive Officer, Annette Ellis, says that from a reputation perspective, applying technology for safety is not a set-and-forget strategy because what’s reasonable now might not be reasonable in the near future.

“Mining companies will have to demonstrate process and intent to stay across technology that could reduce accident risks on site,” she said.

“And we’re not talking about expensive, bespoke technology here. Many risk-mitigating technologies are cheap as chips, and available off the shelf; or like smart phones, already in hand and ready for new applications.”

Ms Ellis cited the example of access cards that allow a worker onto a site as another technology that has the potential for wider safety application.

“By expanding access card technology to plant and infrastructure, linking competency tracking and learning management system records and adding location data, a network is created that can show if a person is operating equipment or is in a location they should not be in,” she said.

“And, using a tablet to digitise tasks and for just-in-time training, helps mitigate one of the biggest risk factors on a mine site – human error. This is more effective than a hard-copy manual because workers will always be using up-to-date procedures.

“Just-in-time training also provides opportunity for workers to give feedback about whether they feel they have had the right level of training, allowing managers to address issues if the answer is no.

“Allowing a person accessing the technology to remain anonymous helps foster a safety culture on site, because it grants employees the freedom to call out unsafe situations.”

Ms Ellis added that in an age where contractors back up one 10-day swing with another at a different site, fatigue management is increasingly a risk.

Marshall McKenna, a partner at Gilbert+ Tobin, said: “Another significant change outlined in the current version of the emerging Workplace Health and Safety Act, is that it includes a positive ongoing duty of due diligence for officers, to ensure that a PCBU complies with its safety obligations, no doubt including the duty to accurately assess a person’s fitness for work.

“Today, $100 cameras can detect fatigue in plant operators and provide real time alerts to a control centre to ensure appropriate action is taken where there is a risk they can’t operate their machinery safely.

“If productivity overrides safety in a company’s culture, and that could be demonstrated, it would be a failure by the directors to take all reasonable steps to keep employees safe.”

As the uptake of technology becomes more widespread, it should create opportunities for industry-wide participation, which is currently lacking in Western Australia. Mr McKenna says that the expectations as to steps that may be reasonable for an employer to take are always evolving, and will be accelerated by this new legislation.

“Already, courts are considering whether cameras and alarms ought to have been fitted in cases where poor visibility has contributed to heavy vehicles coming into contact with employees and causing injury,” he said.

“The increased availability of autonomous technology and the prevalence and relatively low cost of video and remote technology, for example, means that the courts are now likely to be more critical than ever in the event of a failure to use technology to reduce risk.”

Ms Ellis, Ms Shave and Mr McKenna urged mining companies to take the opportunity now before the new laws come in to consider whether their current culture and processes are up to scratch. For example, are there safety risks which could be eliminated or reduced by the use of readily available technology such as drones, cameras or sensors?

Annette Ellis is Cannings Purple’s Chief Executive Officer and has more than 25 years’ experience in corporate communications. She is a specialist in reputation management, crisis communications, change management and stakeholder relations.

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