Safety panel focuses on COVID-19 and mental health as hot topics in frontline worker health and safety

William Gleason

March 3, 2021

The SME Health & Safety Division hosted on Wednesday, March 3, a live panel session titled “Hot Topics in Frontline Worker Health & Safety” — chaired by Susan Moore, NIOSH, and Mark Savit, Predictive Safety.

The purpose of the panel was to identify the most important health and safety topics that mining companies around the world are currently confronting. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic was front and center for part of the discussion, but the session also included discussion about addressing the stigma of mental health, finding and training qualified health and safety professionals, ways to share knowledge and identify the gaps that continue to lead to injuries and fatalities and how to create better behavior for workers.

The panel included:

• David Hale, safety manager, Westmoreland Coal
• Adele Abrams, Law Offices of Adele Abrams
• Scott Stilgenbauer, Senior Advisor Health, Safety & Security, Copper and Diamonds, Rio Tinto
• William York-Feirn, mine safety program director, Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety
• Kim Walster, Behavior Based Safety and Training Specialist, Prairie State Generating Company
• Collin Rogers, manager of health, safety and training, Nevada Gold Mines

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of logistical challenges for mining operations including ways to establish ways to maintain proper social distancing, how to test for COVID-19 symptoms and outbreaks and if there is an outbreak, how best to contain it all while maintaining tight production schedules.

Beyond the pandemic, the panel discussed the need to focus on mental health aspects that have become more challenging during the pandemic. For Hales, who works in the coal industry, the pandemic is yet another outside distraction that has challenged employees.

“We are trying to keep looking ahead and looking at alternatives to how to manage emissions so that we can continue to run our operations,” Hales said. “In the meantime, we know that our mining operations could end the second quarter of this year so to keep people focused on their work and not the outside distractions is a real challenge.”

Stilgenbauer said that while mental health issues are not something many in the mining industry want to discuss, it is a topic that needs to be discussed. “We need to break the stigma down and figure out a way that we can talk about it. And we need to get the lawyers on board to allow us to talk about it,” he said. “There are lot of distractions in the workplace. We are calling it a risk normalization — we need to get people focused on their jobs and manage the distractions.”

Wolster supported the need to improve the health and safety culture and said her company is working to be more proactive to get people involved with wellness programs and other services that can help employees stay healthy.

She also spoke about improving the safety culture in the industry. “People are still getting hurt and killed on the job and not in new and creative ways. It is still red zone and still power-haulage accidents. Why does this keep happening? How do we share the knowledge to prevent these accidents from happening? We need to share our knowledge so we are not just sitting at our own operations trying to reinvent the wheel but that we can work together.”

Rogers asked, “How do we influence people so that is a value and not just a learned behavior?

“For me, the future of safety is not found in regulatory or company policy but will be found in psychology,” said Rogers. “What can we do to put our focus on what we are doing to influence people?”

All of the panelists have earned the Certified Mine Safety Professional (CMSP) certification, and many spoke about how the CMSP is one way to foster improved health and safety practices for the mining industry.

“Finding qualified trainers for our program is one of the biggest challenges that we face,” said York-Feirn. “When we are looking for trainers we look for the CMSP certification because that is a no-brainer, it is proof of experience and knowledge that we are looking for.”

“As I was making the transition from engineering to safety, I wanted to find a credential that was more than just flaunting professional pedigree. It wasn’t another thing to hang on the wall; I wanted something that had value to it,” said Rogers. “I wanted something that is more than just obtaining knowledge but is also a demonstration of commitment to safety. That is what I found with CMSP. It’s an exercise in showing the safety world that I am committed through the code of conduct statement to the profession and to the people I am trying to protect.”


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