JIS News

The bauxite/alumina industry has made a quantum leap in safety over the last 25 years, with recorded injuries taking a nosedive from 8,000 in 1974 to fewer than 500 since 1982.
“This current level of success can be attributed to the commitment of the companies’ management, Government, the workers and generally all the stakeholders in the industry,” says Executive Director of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), Parris Lyew-Ayee, in an interview with JIS News.
Martin Williamson, who up to recently was Inspector of Mines responsible for conducting safety audits in the industry, also gives the thumbs up to the industry.
“It is fair to say that the management and workers in the bauxite/alumina industry take the issue of occupational safety very seriously. Safety is something which they live, breathe and eat, for they realise that one error on anyone’s part, could cause considerable damage and threaten their own lives,” Mr. Williamson says. The industry has, indeed, come a long way in terms of occupational safety consciousness and practice.
In the early days of the bauxite industry, there was no occupational health and safety programme and no legal framework to guide behaviour in the sector.
Consequently, there was a high frequency of injuries per man-hour worked. In the 1960s and up to the late 1970s it was not uncommon for the industry to experience multiple fatal accidents in any given year. In the period 1969-1979 there were 26 fatalities, with six occurring in 1969.
According to a document on safety in the sector, published by the JBI, “the period 1969-1971 saw a significant change in the Government’s attitude toward occupational health and safety. A new, more organized programme was adopted. Prior to 1970 the system was informal in nature”. For example, there was the Mining Act of 1947 but it was general and lacked the necessary details regarding safety regulations and minimum standards to be met. By 1977 the Government promulgated the Mining (Safety and Health) Regulations, which clearly spelled out the regulations and standards.
The Government’s approach, however, went beyond just regulations. Even earlier, in 1973, the Government instituted the Industry Safety Awards Programme, aimed at incentivising good safety practices within the industry. The first awards were made in 1975 for performance the previous year.
Injuries have been trending downwards ever since these annual awards have been instituted, under the auspices of the Ministry responsible for mining. In addition, the bauxite companies themselves have been actively involved in ensuring that safety standards are improved and that a safety culture is inculcated at the various plants. The close co-operation between the state agencies and the industry has, no doubt, prevented major accidents as occurred in the past. In 1971 there was an explosion at one company’s canteen, which left a number of persons injured and over 30 disabled.
Another occurred in 1976 when a flash tank exploded in the digestion area of the plant, leaving 13 employees injured.
Today, there is an All-Bauxite Safety Council, on which representatives of all the bauxite companies sit and which is a forum for exchanging notes and swapping ideas on best practices. This council, which meets bi-monthly and which has state representation, provides an excellent opportunity for collaboration and dialogue as well as buy-in from all the stakeholders. “With the All-Bauxite Safety Council, nobody feels that regulations and standards are being imposed on them from on high,” says Mr. Williamson. “I can definitely say that the bauxite companies are themselves very enthusiastic about implementing good safety standards,” he says.
Mr. Williamson points out that the companies have very practical and commonsensical reasons for doing so. “If proper safety programmes are not in place, then this will affect how your insurers assess you. The insurers look at your housekeeping practices and if things are not in order, you know what kind of assessment you will get,” he adds. Mr. Williamson says it is “like a mantra” that “when anyone enters the plant, the aim is to get him out in one piece. That’s drilled into everybody”.
Acting Commissioner of Mines, Clinton Thompson notes that safety practices form such a part of the culture of working in bauxite companies here, that workers in the industry have, for decades, been more safety-conscious than workers in other industries. “Thirty years ago the first people I saw wearing seat belts religiously were bauxite workers, long before it became law. You will find bauxite workers who ride bikes routinely wearing helmets and families will tell you that they carry the safety practices to the homes. It’s so much a part of them and a tribute to the co-ordinated work of the industry, the Government and the workers themselves,” he says.
Take the example of Alpart Jamaica, just one of the companies which have internalized occupational health and safety. In 1996 Alpart adopted what it calls AZIP – the Alpart Zero Injury Process. It is a most interesting model which stresses co-operation among the stakeholders and has at the heart of its philosophy, the whole matter of each person “owning” safety issues and taking responsibility for not just his own safety, but the safety of the plant. The process was developed by the Behavioural Science Technology Inc. group out of California, USA. The process focuses on changing behavioural practices among staff, so as to eliminate injuries.
The AZIP programme involves all levels of employees. Alpart has what it calls a ‘No Name, No Blame’ system in which workers monitor one another and report on the unsafe practices they have observed, without mentioning names or apportioning blame.
Explains Safety Director, Orville Stephenson: “One worker might observe another not wearing his protective gadget or passing something on the ground which could trip up somebody. He notes that and then does a weekly report without calling any name. The Supervisor will, in his meeting with workers, note the observations and encourage compliance with good safety standards”.
“So there is no sense that people are ‘spying’, but we get the information we need and are able to rectify things,” he adds.
There is an Executive Safety Committee, on which all levels of staff sit, from hourly workers to top management, including the General Manager. So everybody gets together to talk safety. “People mention their observations and we all talk about the issues without anyone knowing who violated the safety practices. So we have no conflicts, just a harmonious working together to solve a common challenge. It works marvelously,” says Mr. Stephenson with passion in his voice.
Workers and managers also get together to “say how we can blow up this plant. We think of all the things that could go wrong and then we work backwards and see what we would need to do to ensure nobody blows up the plant!”
Alpart has been achieving remarkable results in terms of work without down-time. Last year it achieved a Total Case Incident Rate (TCIR) of below one and so far the company is on track for doing so again this year. (TCIR is a measurement of the number of medically treated, restricted and lost time case multiplied by 200,000 man-hours worked.)
“Our studies show that the involvement of hourly-paid workers as observers and active participants in the safety awareness programme has created high levels of commitment and accountability,” says Mr. Stephenson.
Mr. Thompson tells JIS News that ordinary workers have been so empowered on safety issues and the management has elevated the issues to such an importance, “that any casual worker can correct any manager about not wearing his helmet or goggles”.
He says that the local bauxite/alumina industry has made such strides that some of the companies have exceeded international best practice and some local firms have topped international safety standards in their own group. The progress in the sector on safety issues demonstrates what can be achieved with co-operation and synergistic work among stakeholders.