Massive earthmoving equipment, explosives, enormous mills pulverizing rock into dust, chemicals, metal-liquefying furnaces and extreme weather conditions – mining in Alaska is fraught with peril. Yet, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, only the state’s oil fields provide a safer workplace than Alaska mines.
According to a state report on occupational injuries, 1.8 percent of miners in Alaska were injured in 2008, compared to the statewide average of 4.9 percent of employees across all industries.
When it comes to safety, Alaska miners also outshined their peers across the nation. According to a U.S. Department of Labor survey, the injury rate for the natural resources and mining sector in Alaska is 1.9 percent, less than half of the 3.9 percent national average for this group.
Statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Labor, which breaks down the nation’s work force into 13 industrial sectors, indicates that Alaska is a particularly dangerous place to work. Workers in the 49th state sustained a larger percentage of injuries and illnesses in all of the categories except for resource extraction and mining.
Trades with similar skill sets as mining experienced a much higher incident rate. Across the nation 4.6 percent of construction workers were injured or ill in 2008 and during the same period 7.1 percent of Alaska workers in this sector were hurt, more than three times the rate of Alaska miners.
Bankers and executives are the only occupations in the United States that lauded a better safety record than Alaska miners. About 1.4 percent of workers involved in financial activities were injured. Professional and business services came in at 1.8 percent.
Oversight, awareness play roleDue to the inherent risks of working in mines, the U.S. industry has drawn stringent government oversight. Starting in the late 1800s, the federal government began enacting legislation specifically targeting safety in the nation’s mines. Evolving from this initial legislation, the U.S. Mining Safety and Health Administration was formed in 1977 as a watchdog of safety in mines. Today, U.S. mines rank among the safest in the world.
“I think MSHA is due some credit for the citations we write and the standards we set on the industry,” said Bob Wood of MSHA’s Anchorage office.
Modern mining companies have implemented innovative tools and programs to increase safety awareness among workers, which is helping to drive a culture of safety among miners.
While government oversight and industrial attentiveness helps explain the safety record of U.S. mines, it does not account for the much lower-than-average incident rate in Alaska mines. Regulators and industry insiders contend that the state’s large-scale, modern mines play a role in the lower statistic.
“Our big mines up here do have good safety programs – they take safety very seriously,” Wood said.
Fort Knox leads safetyThe 500 or so workers at Kinross Gold Corp.’s Fort Knox Mine north of Fairbanks, are doing their part to drive down the injury rate of Alaska miners. In August, employees at the Interior Alaska gold mine logged 3.5 million hours without a lost-time accident.
To put the achievement in perspective, consider that for one employee to accomplish the feat, he or she would need to work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 1,750 years without suffering a single injury that would cause him or her to miss work for more than 24 hours. A sprained ankle, a pulled back muscle or a smashed finger could all be considered a lost-time injury.
In fact, according to records kept by the U.S. Mining Safety and Health Administration, the last time a Kinross employee experienced a lost-time incident at the Fort Knox Mine was in December 2006 when a welder twisted his knee while maintaining a motor grader.
Fort Knox General Manager Lauren Roberts credits the commitment of the mine’s employees to maintaining the highest safety standards and the hard work they’ve put in to achieve the nearly four-year run without an incident.
“We all recognize that safety is the bedrock foundation of a well-run, efficient and productive work environment. I am proud to be part of such a conscientious team,” Roberts said.
Managers at the mine told Mining News that the safety success at Fort Knox is no accident.
How they do itFort Knox spokeswoman Lorna Shaw said the employees and management have implemented various tools to develop a culture of safety at the gold mine.
“They do have an outstanding safety program up there,” MSHA’s Wood told Mining News.
One of the primary tools used at Fort Knox is a program known as SOS, or “See it; own it; solve it.” The premise behind SOS is that the program focuses on employee involvement in identifying and solving unsafe conditions and behaviors at the mine site.
“SOS is a program run by hourly employees and it focuses on the behavior of employees. People’s behavior and actions are what cause accidents. Our employees have the courage to address unwanted behavior and as a result, our accident rate has gone down,” Fort Knox Mine Health and Safety Manager Bob Sweeden said.
SOS is only one of the programs that assisted the Fort Knox team to achieve 3.5 million hours without a lost-time incident.
“The safety process at Fort Knox revolves around culture, and SOS is just one of the tools we’ve employed to build that culture,” Sweeden said. “Culture by design is better than culture by default.”
Fort Knox management utilizes the Safety Training Observation Program, or STOP, developed by DuPont.
According to DuPont, STOP for Supervision teaches managers, supervisors and team leaders how to observe people as they work. By talking with people to acknowledge safe acts and correct unsafe acts, workers are encouraged to follow safe work practices.
Sweeden said each manager performs monthly STOP audits by observing employees’ or contractors’ work and then providing positive or negative feedback, depending on the observation.
In addition to safety programs, management and hourly employees conduct weekly planned inspections.
“Everything is examined, from housekeeping, to broken tools, to proper guarding or adequate signage,” Shaw explained. “The idea is to take an in-depth look at a different area each week to ensure that the mine is operating as safely as possible and that any hazardous conditions are corrected.”
She said safety comes down to individual decisions by employees to do things right.
“We can provide the tools, the training, and help shape the culture, but ultimately, every employee is responsible for safety,” Shaw observed.