When bending the rules kills us

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018
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This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 22 May 2017:

I recently had a discussion with a CEO of a South African mining company about fatalities in one of the company’s mines. He mentioned that compared to the death-toll on the South African roads, fatalities in underground mines in SA are relatively low. He was referring to the condition of the country’s roads and the behaviour of drivers using the roads, both can vary from good to exceptionally poor, but both generally hovers around the ‘can-be-vastly-improved’ point. Whether he is right or wrong in his comparison of the two is rather moot when one considers that the underlying cause for the death rate for both is human behaviour and action. 

A New York Times article about the death of two UN contract workers in the DRC and the disappearance of four more in March 2017, made me revisit my brief conversation with the CEO and made me think of safety violations in the workplace, whether that workplace is in an office in London, Sandton or New York, or deep in the bowels of the earth in an underground mine, or on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, or in the war-torn jungles of the world. What makes us as human beings disregard safety regulations and protocol that are put in place for our protection? While there could be incidents where safety violations and non-compliance are deliberate, perhaps as acts of sabotage, there is of course also what is known in South African mining as planisa. Planisa is a Fanakalo word, which refers to “making a plan”, particularly when deep down in the mine. Fanakalo is (was?) the lingua franca based on English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu, used in South Africa, particularly in the mines.  Planisa implores minors to tackle the day-to-day problems underground with skills and ingenuity to unblock the bottlenecks that prevent production targets from being reached. When there is no (or very little) correlation between the safety regulations and protocols in the workplace and the output required from the worker, violations become the normal methods of working, often leading to incidents and fatalities. I don’t think any worker would want to be injured or perish, but most of these incidents stem from a genuine desire to perform work satisfactorily despite the constraints and the expectations that exist in the specific workplace. And it is this desire which kills so many in our mines, factories and which also killed the two UN experts, who ignored the UN security rules, no doubt believing that they would be safe and that it is the only way to get the job done efficiently. 

So how does one temper the human tendency to planisa and in the process break safety rules? Is it to hold the supervisors accountable, as the mining company did following the fatalities? Or is it to improve supervision, management and culture? Is it to conduct an audit and to understand the factors that may increase violations? Is it to provide workers the tools they require to produce the output required? Is it all of the above? I don’t know, but what I know for sure is that human beings will always bend the rules when they think they won’t be caught and/or if they think there is no real danger to the activity.  

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