June/July 2009


They also serve who stand and watch

By R. Bergen

A culture of vigilance and respect secures safety award

Employee Jack Parlee (left) reviews an observation with a fellow worker Steve Otis. 

PotashCorp’s operation in Sussex, New Brunswick, has developed a knack for even numbers: 2004, 2006, and with the nice round figure of zero (the number of reportable injuries), it can also claim that it is the best of 2008. Last month, at the CIM Conference and Exhibition in Toronto, the mine was awarded the John T. Ryan Trophy in the select mine category, in recognition of its unmatched safety record.

The shaft mine, about 70 kilometres northeast of Saint John, runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and turns out 800,000 tonnes of potash and another 600,000 tonnes of salt each year. There was not a single reportable injury among its over 400 permanent and contract workforce last year.

“Everyone takes a great deal of pride in that award,” said Mark Fracchia, general manager of the Sussex operation. About six years ago, they put a behavioural safety process in place at the mine to complement the existing safety programs. Since then, the operation has established itself as a national leader in safety.

The process succeeds because it is not based on hindsight, explained Fracchia. “A mechanic may observe two or three other mechanics who are conducting preventive maintenance on one of the mining machines. He’ll look to see whether they are working safely, using the right equipment, and using the equipment properly; he’ll note that on the observation card and then offer feedback. If he notices someone doing an at-risk behaviour, he will try to get a commitment from that individual to work safely.” In addition, said Fracchia, “a facilitator gathers data and isolates trends that could result in an injury. Then we come up with action plans to try to remedy these before somebody gets hurt.”

The peer observation system means that the safety behaviours of each employee are observed about once a month. Workers, however, are not constantly looking over their shoulders, said Fracchia. “It’s a no-name, no-blame process.” The reinforcement between employees is positive, he explained. “They’ve taken ownership of safety and don’t just rely on the safety professionals at the site.”

The Sussex mine is not unionized. Fracchia credits the fraternity that extends beyond the workplace as a safety cornerstone. “We have an experienced workforce — the average age is 49. And people look out for each other. Most of the employees have been here since the start of the operation. They’ve grown up with each other.”

Despite the absence of reportable injuries last year, Fracchia insisted that there are still opportunities for improvement. The committee that oversees the John T. Ryan award process defines reportable injuries as ones that send a worker home or to the hospital, but also any that compel an employee, though he remains at work, to abandon his usual duties for some lighter or modified task. At the Sussex operation, even a trip to a first-aid station for a bandage is recorded, said Fracchia. With these criteria in place, he said, the mine had 2.11 reportable injuries per 200,000 work hours in 2008. “We are doing great. I don’t want to diminish our accomplishments, but our goal is to continually get better.”

The peer-oriented safety process at the Sussex mine was one of the first to be implemented in PotashCorp’s Canadian operations, and it has since been adopted by the other potash divisions within the company.  It has also been implemented at the company’s nitrogen and phosphate operations in the United States.

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