Sept/Oct 2012

All for one, one for all

Sherritt Coal’s Paintearth mine takes collaborative approach to safety

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Courtesy of Sherritt Coal

When Sherritt Coal’s Paintearth mine, a conventional surface strip mining operation with an annual production capacity of 3.5 million tonnes of coal, received The John T. Ryan Trophy for being the country’s safest coal mine this past May, many wanted to know the secret to its safety record. After all, Paintearth has received the John T. Ryan Trophy – awarded for having had the lowest reportable injury frequency per 200,000 hours worked in the previous year – seven times since 2001. “Mine inspectors have come on site and asked ‘what works for you guys?’” says Chris Chapman, safety supervisor for both Paintearth and Sherritt’s Sheerness coal mine, which received the award for the fourth time in 2009. His answer is always the same: “It’s the communication, and the way everyone works together from the corporate level, to management and hourly employees.”

But listen to Chapman expand on what that means, and a far more complex paradigm begins to show – one that points to the difference between a checklist approach to safety, and a culture of collaboration and commitment that ensures safety awareness and action permeate every individual’s approach at every level of the organization. In other words, there is constant communication between highly informed people who are keenly aware and alert and are investing the time and effort to maintain that level of awareness.

It all starts at the corporate level, says Chapman. Sherritt sets a Lost Time Injury (LTI) index target of zero and a Total Recordable Injury (TRI) index target of less than 0.75. In 2011, the company achieved an average LTI index of 0.05 and a TRI index of 0.32.

“We have a lot of support from our corporate office,” he says. “They come out here a lot, tour the mine site, talk with the employees about safety issues and celebrate with us when we achieve our targets.”

There are also monthly audits, which are reviewed by the mine’s crew at safety meetings so that staff become aware of the findings and have the chance to provide input. On top of all that, there are meetings with the mine manager and the maintenance manager every Monday and Friday, and an open-door policy is maintained at all times. While Paintearth uses the Alberta Mine Safety Association’s safety program to educate its employees, it also promotes mentoring and sharing insights and experiences from one generation of workers to the next.

“We have employees who have been working at the mine for 35 years, so they pass on the safety culture to the new employees,” explains Chapman. “Because we’re a small operation, we have a lot of good one-on-one interaction. It is a huge investment, but the employees look forward to seeing the outcomes of the audits because they know they are not just a guy walking around checking off boxes, and they’re also involved with them. And they know if a problem is identified, it will be addressed.”

It has been four years since the mine had an incident reported. Prior to that, it had been nine years. “So they are very few and far between,” says Chapman. “When an incident is reported to our general manager, there’s a modified work program available, if it is required. Our employees know that any problem will be addressed, so there’s a level of trust.”

The mine’s commitment to fostering ongoing awareness and knowledge sharing extends beyond its own operations. “We belong to the Alberta Mine Safety Association and we meet quarterly and discuss our safety records and what issues other mines are having. We share our experiences,” says Chapman. “But we don’t have a canned safety program. It just comes down to the communication between the corporate office, the managers and the hourly employees.”

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