Gord Winkel

Distinguished Lecturer 2013-14

In recognition of his leadership and diligence to advance safety excellence for the global mining industry.

Presentation Topic: The Journey to High-Performing Safety Cultures in Mining

This presentation celebrates the 10th year since CIM launched the first Distinguished Lecturers series on safety, which was held to support the institute’s commitment to fostering a high-performing safety culture in the mining industry. Winkel profiles initiatives that have positively shifted the industry’s safety achievement curve , and sets the stage for sustainable safety gains in the future. Also profiled are the latest developments in CIM Mining Standards and Guidelines work that supports new opportunities for safety standards and best practice sharing. Safety is a global challenge, it is an opportunity for international players to join forces and collaborate on leading the mining industry.

Q&A: Gord Winkel talks about the past, present and future of mine safety

By Dinah Zeldin

CIM: When did the journey to a high-performing safety culture in mining begin?

Winkel: Our journey began the day we opened our first mine and was a focus area for CIM right from the institute’s start. It really started to take hold in 1941 when the John T. Ryan Safety Award, which is the longest standing safety award in Canada, was developed.

CIM launched its first Distinguished Lecturer series on safety a decade ago. We wanted to raise the profile of mining safety as an imperative for our industry and to emphasize that safety was something we needed to keep focusing on, improving on and sharing best practices on in order to hit higher levels of achievement. This year, we have decided to hearken back to some of those early lessons learned, and to build on them with a Distinguished Lecturer presentation on what we now know to be attributes of high-performing safety culture.

Safety is now not only a challenge for us here in Canada, it is also a global challenge, and global players are joining forces to share and achieve best practices.

CIM: What is an example of an initiative that has had a significant impact on the industry?

Winkel: One of the first that comes to mind is the field-level risk assessment or the pre-job hazard assessment, which asks workers to stop and check for hazards around them before they perform an action. If there are hazards, workers are asked to ensure the necessary controls are put in place. Once the hazards are controlled, workers can move forward.

This practice is important because no set procedure or practice can contemplate everything that is going to happen in the field. The use of a field-level risk assessment allows us to not only effectively minimize risk in the workplace but also to get all employees involved, at every level in the company. Field-level risk assessment has become a leading practice in the industry.

CIM: Who has to take the first steps to identify and enforce these types of leading practices on site?

Winkel: Everybody in the company needs to be involved. It starts with the tone at the top from the executives that set safety as a value for the company. With that support it is the job of every succeeding level of leadership to act out those values in every decision they make so that safety never comes behind any other objectives. Safety is not a set of practices; it is a value that must become the basis for any decision-making and must get carried out right on the front line.

It is the front line workers who actually move the tonnes in mining, so they have to be some of the best risk managers in the business, which is why something like the field-level risk assessment is so helpful for them.

So, although executives set the tone, everybody must be a leader in safety.

CIM: What are the main obstacles that companies face when implementing the leading practices necessary for a high-performing safety culture?

Winkel: Recognizing practices that can enter into a culture that may threaten safety performance. We call this normalization of deviance. That is when, over time, a particular shortcut, like missing a step in a process, becomes the norm and the operation begins to move away from established standards.

NASA’s shuttle program fell prey to this issue. The Challenger and the Columbia shuttles were both destroyed during missions, and while it was found that the technical causes were different in each instance, the basic system causes behind each of the shuttle disasters were the same. After the Challenger shuttle disaster, the technical problem was fixed, but the issue with the safety culture in the organization was allowed to persist, which allowed an incident to happen again. It is good to also show appreciation that these learnings were shared with us in industry. Incidents are a tragedy, but the biggest tragedy would be not to learn from them.

CIM: What are the essential elements that must in place to ensure a high-performing safety culture flourishes?

Winkel: There are seven things that need to happen for a safety culture to really take root.

The first, as noted earlier, is that safety has to be a core value of the corporation because priorities change, but values do not. Secondly, everyone in the organization needs to understand why safety is important; they should understand what hazards are and what their consequences are, and they need to understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to contain hazards. The third element is that a formalized safety program must be in place and the responsibilities of each person in the company to support that program must be clearly defined.

The fourth element is training: once the safety program is understood, staff need to be coached on the expectations of their performance and on how these can be realized. This does not mean providing a binder; it means working with staff out in the field and demonstrating the application of techniques. The next essential component is measurement, and this includes both lagging indicators that have traditionally been used to measure safety performance (incidence frequency) and leading indicators that report on the activities undertaken in order to achieve good safety (these include measurements like near-miss reports, on-the-job observations conducted, field-level risk assessments, et cetera). Companies should strive to excel in activities measured by leading indicators, as being proactive results in better safety. The sixth element is a sense of urgency to take action if the measurements do not meet expectations, and the seventh element is to ensure broad-based participation. Basically, implementing and maintaining a high-performing safety culture is not just the job of the leaders. The participation element means that everyone in the company has a role to play.

Even if all seven of these things are happening, we need to remember that we have not arrived: continuous improvement must be part of the culture.

CIM: You speak about an objective to coordinate safety globally. Canada is much more segmented by provinces than the U.S. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And how do you see Canada’s safety regulations evolving?

Winkel: In Canada, harmonizing regulations from across the provinces would support firms that have operations in the different jurisdictions.. The newly established CIM Global Mining Standards and Guidelines Group has a focus on safety, and a subgroup is studying what opportunities exist to support improved mining safety. This includes testing whether harmonization would provide sufficient value for our industry to make a project viable.

We are also looking at regulations, safety programs and corporate standards as frameworks. This includes correlating safety performance in the different areas and attempting to identify the most successful frameworks, which can in turn be shared with the mining industry as best practices. We are already starting to share what some corporations are doing.

CIM: What is the next step industry needs to take to get to an even better place in terms of safety culture?

Winkel: I think we are already far along. In some provinces mining is factors of two and three safer than other industries. We are already making great progress but we need to keep doing more. Safety will become part of the sustainability equation for how we do our business. In the court of public opinion, safety is one of the hallmarks people use to judge whether our licence to operate should continue.


After retiring from his post as vice-president for Syncrude Canada Ltd. in 2010, Gord Winkel joined the University of Alberta as chair and industrial professor for the safety and risk management program in the faculty of engineering. Winkel has worked extensively in the oil sands industry. He joined the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil organization as a vice-president on loan from Syncrude Canada Ltd. to advance the Kearl Oil Sands project. Previously, Winkel was vice-president, aurora bitumen production at Syncrude Canada Ltd., served as general manager of extraction, was manager of extraction operations and manager of mine maintenance/operations at Syncrude. This is Winkel’s third Distinguished Lecturer Award: in 2002, he was recognized for his efforts to improve workplace safety, and, in 2008, for his work to advance the surface mining industry through sharing knowledge, technology, best practices and innovation. Winkel continues to support mining research and technology development in Canada as a board member for both the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) and the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development(CONRAD). He also chairs the Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology (SMART), and chairs the John T. Ryan Safety Committee for CIM. He has also accepted a board position on Careers: The Next Generation Foundation. Winkel joined the University of Alberta Board of Governors Safety, Health and Environment Committee, and participates on the Leadership Table for a National Injury Reduction Initiative summit. He also works to provide support in safety, risk management and organization effectiveness to firms across Canada.

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