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'Zero harm' is the only acceptable target

3 October 2022

‘Zero harm’ has been the mining industry’s clarion call for years, galvanising massive changes in operations that led to a dramatic decline in fatalities over the last few decades.

By Rohitesh Dhawan, CEO, ICMM for Mining Journal Intelligence's 'Global Leadership Report, 2022 Edition'.

That leap forward was enabled by technological advancements, cultural changes and collaborations with workers and companies outside mining. Now though, that dramatic decline in fatalities has just about plateaued.

We as an industry have an obligation to hunt for the next step change to make zero harm a reality.

Safety remains a top priority for CEOs for yet another year, according to the Global Leadership Report by Mining Journal Intelligence. Clearly, the drive to make mines safer has not stopped, nor can it afford to.

A report by ICMM, which represents about a third of the industry, showed that, sadly, 43 people from across our membership of 26 companies died at work in 2021. This is still an unacceptably high number.

While we can draw strength from how far we have come, when fatalities were much higher, we should remain deeply uncomfortable until zero harm is actually achieved.

Our past tells us that in the face of trying circumstances, we have the will and the ways to work together to create a safer future.

A clear example of this was the Global Industry on Tailings Management. After the devastating deaths of more than 270 people in Brazil in 2019, mining companies and other stakeholders came together to produce a series of standards to encourage good safety practices and take all steps to avoid another catastrophe.

The tragic events at Brumadinho highlighted that we cannot be complacent and that being proactive is the best defence against fatal incidents.

This is particularly important as we look to the future. In the drive towards a lower carbon economy, the world is going to need more mining and metals. But delivering these products cannot come at the cost of the planet or of human life.

This is what at ICMM we call Mining with Principles and it’s at the core of everything we do.

We recently updated our member commitments at ICMM, referred to as Mining Principles, to include psychological safety. With these changes we want to make clear that there is no place for discrimination, harassment, and assault anywhere in mining or in our society.

Let me be frank with you – we still have a long way to keep our colleagues safe at all times. A good litmus test of how the industry is collectively doing on safety is to speak to your friends and family about how they see mining. A quick poll around most dinner tables shows me that we have a lot of work to do.

This means we need to search for the next step change in getting us to actual zero harm.

With collisions being the leading cause of death last year, vehicle safety on mines has been brought to the fore.

The ICMM’s Innovation for Cleaner, Safer Vehicles (ICSV) brings original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) together with mining companies to promote collision-avoidance technology capable of eliminating fatalities.

It’s led to joint ventures that have made mines safer, with our main goals to decarbonise the mining fleet, lower the impact of diesel exhausts underground and to advance vehicle collision-avoidance technology.

On fall of ground fatalities, the Minerals Council of South Africa is making headway in reducing fatalities through improved hanging wall netting techniques, refocused CEO leadership, and investing in new technologies. For the first time ever, South African gold and platinum underground mines, which are among the deepest in the world, recorded no fatalities by fall of ground in the first seven months of this year.

But we still need to do more, faster through collaboration and information-sharing to learn from each other’s mistakes. I believe safety is an area where we cannot afford to be competitive and I am encouraged how competitiveness has not hobbled our discussions to improve safety.

Zero harm must be the tangible and measurable objective, not just a lofty hope. Looking back at how the industry has come together to change the course of safety performance, I am convinced that the zero-harm goal is within our reach.

Nothing can bring back the 43 employees that died last year at ICMM member operations. But it’s our moral obligation to learn from those mistakes so that we can return workers back to their families at the end of every workday.