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In one of many discussions at MINExpo last month I was asked an interesting question; what do you think the key priority for the mining industry is: safety or productivity?

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In one of many discussions at MINExpo last month I was asked an interesting question; what do you think the key priority for the mining industry is: safety or productivity?

There are many levels on which safety must be a priority for mining operations. Apart from the fact that maintaining a safe working environment is simply ‘the right thing to do’, staff are a very valuable asset for any company. It makes sense to value their wellbeing in terms of health and safety. Moreover, in an era that emphasises corporate responsibility, the motivation is even stronger: not only do you need to improve safety, you need to be seen to be doing it. On top of this is the unique nature of safety issues in the mining industry. Relatively speaking the mining industry in countries like the US is a safe one; major accidents are rare. When an accident does occur, however, it attracts significant media attention due to the emotions that can be tied up with it. Even Zola, writing his novel Germinal 200 hundred years ago, was aware that: ‘in mining disasters the rule is that men walled in underground must always be presumed to be alive.’ While this presumption is laudable, it can heighten emotion and leave an association of high drama with the coal industry that is not easily forgotten by the general public. In a time when the industry is facing a recruitment crisis, this is certainly a hindrance, which can most effectively be addressed by establishing initiatives to improve safety. Thus at MINExpo we heard many companies, such as Bucyrus, setting themselves a goal of reaching ‘zero fatalities’ in their operations.

With this in mind, could we say that safety is now more important to the mining industry than productivity? I’m not sure that we could. Maintaining consistent levels of productivity is important for ensuring that a mining operation succeeds financially; every moment of downtime is lost time and therefore lost money. Demand for coal is increasing as more people in the right places come to view it as a viable fuel for the future. However, coal will only become harder to mine as the ‘easier’ reserves are exhausted. The need for consistent levels of productivity will drive innovation in the industry as it searches for more efficient machines and technologies to work in more niche environments. Productivity, therefore, remains a key concern of the mining industry.

There is also a third concern for the industry, which is going to continue to grow in significance in the future, that is the environment and, more specifically, emissions reduction. Many in the industry may feel there is little to gain and a lot to loose for them in making changes to their operations for the sake of environmental concerns. For example, it could be the case that switching to biodeisel fuel to run your engines may be beneficial to the environment, but could be detrimental to your operation if you have not made the necessary changes to your engine to make it compliant with this fuel, or if you find that your engines are less powerful, or run more slowly as a result, making the operation as a whole less efficient and thus less productive. If greater incentive is offered for changes to be made in this area of the industry, then it may well gain equal importance with the other two priorities that have been discussed. It certainly seems that these incentives are beginning to take shape, as more and more emissions reduction legislation is being passed across the world.

So in answer to the question initially posed, I think that safety and productivity will continue to be important to the industry, with environmental concerns coming a close second.