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Recognizing Hazards using Written Procedures

People often say that mining is a dangerous industry, but I think a better description would be that it is a hazardous industry. When you look in the dictionary, “dangerous” means “able or likely to cause harm or injury.”  “Hazardous,” on the other hand, means “involving or exposing one to risk.” Yes, in mining, there is the possibility for harm or injury, but if you go to work every day thinking you will likely get hurt, you should probably re-think the company you are working for. The better description of our industry is that it is a hazardous one. We are surrounded by hazards every day, so in order to stay safe, we have to learn how to recognize those hazards and teach employees how to both recognize and mitigate them.

There are a wide variety of tools that will help with hazard recognition. They range from Field Level Risk Assessments (FLRAs) to classroom and hands on training, to Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (HIRA) systems. One of the most overlooked ways to help with hazard recognition is with detailed and well written procedures. Written procedures are called by many names (SOPs, JSAs, JSEAs, SWPs) and are often overlooked because they are typically very general, out of date and have very little useful information.  Because of this, people in the field usually don’t even consider them a resource. Reviewing a SOP is simply another box to check off before they can do the work.  In order for these procedures to really help those out in the field, they need to be turned into a resource that people see as valuable and can trust.  

I worked as a rotary driller in the mining industry for years, and very rarely, if ever, consulted my company’s written procedures (SOPs). In fact, I distinctly remember one instance when I attempted to use one. I was changing a tire on my crew truck and wanted to know what the torque was for the lug nuts, so I pulled out the SOP for tire changing, thinking it had to be in there. The SOP went through how to change a tire but did not include the lug nut torque anywhere. I was very frustrated, and I remember thinking that the SOPs in general were just useless and there was no point in ever using them. Looking back on my experience, I can see that just making it a company policy to consult SOPs is not enough. You have to make them a reliable resource that people want to refer to.

After years of drilling, I changed companies and became a safety professional.  When my job responsibilities changed to include updating the SOPS, the first one I focused on was for changing tires, and I made sure to include the lug nut torques. As you embark on updating SOPs, I recommend beginning with ones related to maintenance. When writing them, don’t just include the steps to take. Include any pertinent information someone would need to know for that specific task.  For example, for oil changes include the filter numbers (oil, fuel, and air), type and amount of oil, wrench sizes, etc.  Work to make them as useful as possible and add pictures if you can. If you do it right, even those who do not want to take the time to read the procedure will at least use it for the information it contains. Once people begin to form the habit of referring to SOPs, they can now be used to help with hazard recognition. 

When the SOPs are being written, it is important to work with the supervisors and managers to not only capture the steps but also the hazards involved with the tasks. Yes, it is very important for those on the jobsite to recognize hazards themselves, but there are often hundreds of years of experience in leadership roles that can add potential hazards to the SOPs that newer employees would never think to look for or catch themselves. For example, I once worked on a type of drill that would store hydraulic pressure in the head, even when turned off and allowed to sit.  Those experienced on that type of rig would cycle the hydraulic controls with the rig off to relieve the stored pressure. One day, a mechanic was working on a similar rig and the machine unexpectedly moved because of the stored pressure, injuring the mechanic’s hand. If this hazard had been captured in a SOP, the mechanic would have known the hazard of stored energy and made sure to cycle the controls. Or better yet figure out why there was stored energy in the first place and try to eliminate the hazard by fixing it.  

Another way that SOPs can help with hazard recognition is by capturing lessons learned. Whenever there is an incident, whether it is a high potential near miss or an actual accident/injury, a lot of time is spent investigating what happened to determine the root cause and what can be done to prevent it from happening in the future. Reports are created and there is often a lot of discussion involved, but how do we communicate what we learned to the company as a whole? And how do we capture that information so that it doesn’t happen again? Often, companies send out hazard alerts, but most people only think about that alert until the next incident comes along and a new hazard alert is sent out. Adding these experiences to SOPs is a great tool to capture what was learned and embed it in the procedures themselves. 

The first step when adding what was learned is to review the relevant SOPs and determine which SOPs need to be changed and specifically what steps need to be updated. Add the new steps and controls, but also make sure to add a brief description of why the new steps and controls are being put in place. Make sure the section with what you learned stands out so that it is obvious that either something bad happened at this point in the task or something bad almost happened. Come up with a standard so that if there is, for example, a highlighted section or bold text, everyone knows it is a lesson learned and they should pay extra attention. Embedding this SOPs means it will always be part of that procedure and you won’t have to just rely on the memory of long-term employees.

Written procedures are rarely thought of as a tool for hazard recognition, but that is because they usually have a bad reputation. Before you can use them as a hazard recognition tool, you will have to make them useful so that the people doing the work will begin to refer to and trust them. Include key details for each specific task so that they actually help those in the field. Once you have people using them, work on adding known hazards drawn from the experience of the supervisors and managers, and then finally embed any lessons learned from high-potential near misses or incidents/accidents so that they will always be remembered. This process takes a significant investment of time and money, but at the end, you will have given those in the field a great tool to help with hazard recognition.

A Safety Training System commonly used in mines is GroundHogLMS.com

You can also read more about Safety at mines at https://groundhogapps.com/mining-safety-lms/

About the Author: John Fowler

John Fowler is a Certified Safety Professional and a Certified Mine Safety Professional who has worked on projects ranging from offshore oil/gas platforms in Alaska to surface and underground mines in the western US.  You can contact John at john.m.fowler@gmail.com.

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