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Make risk management work for you

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Coal mining has always carried the challenge of working in difficult, dangerous circumstances. But, in an increasingly international market, there are new challenges for those responsible for staff at all levels.
Whether a company has employees stationed permanently in remote parts of the world, or has a smaller team, based in a major capital, managing the operation at arm’s length, the task of assessing and catering for risk is a modern necessity.
It is a problem with particular urgency for companies based in the UK, where the new Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act 2007 places fresh emphasis on the creation of a safety culture and the need for management to act responsibly at all levels. Failure to do so could result in penalties that go beyond previous health and safety legislation.
But that does not mean only employers based in the UK need to examine and improve their safety and risk management strategies. Where staff are based abroad, any accidents which lead to serious injuries or fatalities could result in charges by authorities in that country. Companies also need to be aware of the potential for civil liabilities and the fact that claimants have a choice of where to sue.
Health and safety issues impact at all levels in the mining industry and, for those responsible for training or travel, should be at the top of the agenda, particularly as the industry looks to more remote and potentially hostile parts of the world for expansion.
In those higher risk parts of the world, attracting and retaining the right individuals to live and work in isolated, sometimes dangerous areas is becoming difficult and expensive.
But both there and in less remote areas, employers must consider how they will respond if an employee is hurt in the line of work and do everything they can to prevent avoidable fatalities.
There are also implications for companies’ reputations. One of the main provisions of the new manslaughter law is the power for the court to impose a “publicity order”, under which a convicted company must publicise their own conviction and the details of the punishment. In addition to greater financial penalties expected to be imposed under the new law, the reputational damage of arising from such a publicity order will have a very significant impact.
Environmental and community issues are, likewise, tied into this idea of being a good corporate citizen. While these may not have a direct connection with the welfare of employees, it is a major concern for larger companies with widespread interests around the world and a large number of indigenous employees.
The conduct of mining companies can be a major factor – for good or ill – in the health and safety of the population around sites. Forward-thinking mines have shown it is possible to make a positive contribution to local communities, by providing access to facilities and resources. Investment in public health programmes, including malaria control, clean water schemes and sexual health information and support have delivered real results, while demonstrating that mining operations can work with – and to the benefit of – local communities.
As well as such initiatives being a worthwhile exercise in their own right such, there is a growing mainstream awareness of how large companies behave when they move into an area.
But it is not enough for mining companies to just provide on-the-ground medical services for their workforce. Mitigating risk and preventing illness and injury must be the primary goal. Organisations need to develop working practices and policies which identify risk and how it is to be managed.
A written risk assessment policy, clearly communicated through training and in contracts of employment and strictly implemented at every level is vital. Communication is also important in terms of keeping workers connected to the wider organisation.
With effective information flow, employees in the remotest parts of the world can be kept abreast of the information they need to stay safe, while employers can see, at a moment’s notice, which personnel may be affected by a particular crisis.
Rigorous safety training and detailed knowledge of which employees are where and when is essential. Similarly, the employees must know exactly how to act in any crisis and who to contact.
The four vital areas all companies should consider to ensure they could cope with any medical, political or natural crisis are: preparation; compliance; tracking and communication.
In terms of preparation, the most up to date information about destinations and working environment are crucial. The second stage, compliance, involves ensuring staff have completed risk assessments, taking the latest information into account, and will comply with the company’s travel policy.
Robust tracking and mapping systems allow employers to keep up to date with staff movements at all times. Finally, communication becomes crucial when an employee must be notified of an important event in the area, or needs to make contact in an emergency.
Keeping employees in touch with any developments that might affect them is fundamental. Situations such as a coup, an outbreak of a disease or a natural disaster, such as the Asian Tsunami or Pakistan earthquake, must be communicated to anyone who may be directly, or indirectly affected by them.
Real-time intelligence on world events can be matched against the location and occupation of each employee globally, allowing personalised alerts to be sent out to affected individuals electronically – by email or text message, for example.
The legal and regulatory pressure to protect the welfare of workers is growing. Duty of care extends to all employees, however remote their location and employers must understand the need to anticipate and mitigate risks. Failure to do so – even for workers sent outside the UK – is more likely than ever to have serious long-term repercussions.
Those who embrace the health and safety challenge as a means of becoming a better employer may find their investment will deliver returns across the business.
For further information contact Alex McGregor, Business Director International SOS

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