Sheerness mine employees proudly display their John T. Ryan Trophy.
Despite the millions of work hours spent mining tens of millions of tonnes of coal from the deposit just outside of Hanna, Alberta, the Sheerness mine has managed to keep its safety record virtually spotless. This spring, the mine, owned by Sherritt Coal, claimed the John T. Ryan Trophy as the country’s safest coal mine for the fourth time in its short history. “In over 14 years, we have never lost a day of work,” says Chris Chapman, safety supervisor for Sherritt’s Sheerness and Paintearth coal mines. As with the previous milestones, employees observed the event with a company-sponsored steak barbeque.
Chapman has been in his position for the last three J.T. Ryan Trophy victories at Sheerness and another three at Paintearth, all within the last eight years. He is at pains to emphasize how this achievement is built on the foundation laid by the workers on the ground. “We’ve had people come to see us to find out what makes us so different that we can go 14 years without a lost-time incident,” says Chapman. “There’s nothing that we can put on a piece of paper; there is nothing we can videotape or put into a canned program and give them to walk away with. They learn, just by talking to them, that how our employees think and talk about safety is what makes the difference at the mine site. Obviously, it makes my job a lot easier when the employees buy into safety.”
According to Chapman, no outside occupational safety consultants have been brought in. Safety initiatives, he explains, tend to be generated internally. “Employees aren’t afraid to come forward with questions, and supervisors aren’t afraid to bring up safety issues and reminders with the employees,” he offers as explanation for how the mine maintains its high standard.
The culture beneath this record, like the coal beneath the plains, was there long before the operation began mining its potential, says Chapman. “The employees here have a culture of hard work. Hanna is a farming community and these guys are used to working. They come to work and they put in a full day. I’ve been to other operations where somebody’s been injured and they’ve gone off work. If one of our employees is injured, he’ll want to be a part of the modified work program to make sure that he stays at work.”
Beyond the committed workforce, Chapman explains, the mine’s joint safety committee, comprised of management and labour representatives, performs monthly safety audits to survey how effectively past processes and modifications are put in place, and also to locate and address any areas of risk. The results of these audits are posted for workers to review. Risky procedures or behaviours are modified with the cooperation of the workforce, within a clearly defined timeframe. As an example, Chapman shares the result of a recent audit. “On our draglines, we discovered that not everyone was doing the lockout procedure in the same way. So the committee came back and discussed why this was happening and designed a group lockout system and wrote up a new work procedure. So now, when certain major jobs are done on the dragline, there is a group rather than an individual lockout system.”
Together, the unionized workers, staff and management number 110. The mine runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with four different 12-hour shifts. It produces about four million tonnes of coal each year that are burned at the neighbouring Sheerness Generating Station, owned by Transalta and ATCO Electric. And all this is done without a jolt or spill. It is indeed rare for things to be so well done.