Dr Sizwe Phakathi: agent of change

Dr Sizwe Phakathi, head safety and sustainable development at the Chamber of Mines, tells Leon Louw more about his book and the realities of working in an underground mine.

IMG 4311Dr Sizwe Phakathi, head safety and sustainable development at the Chamber of Mines.
Image credit: Leon Louw

Dr Phakathi, what is the title of your book and what did you try to achieve with the research?

The book is called Production, Safety and Teamwork in a Deep-Level Mining Workplace. I hope it will bring to the fore the realities of how work processes shape the actions of frontline mining teams, production supervisors, and managers. In an underground mine, the day-to-day lived experiences of workers directly shape production processes. Those experiences are of fundamental importance to a range of managerial concerns, including organisational behaviour and human resource management, organisational safety and risk management, production systems, work relations, and change management. Yet, they are too often overlooked by the executives and managers who design management strategies. 

The book will help practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers to understand the factors influencing work processes, production, safety, teamwork, and work relations — not only in a mining workplace but more generally as well. The insights it provides into the importance of day-to-day lived working experiences will help them to improve organisational, employee, and team performance.

When did you join the Chamber of Mines?

I joined the Chamber of Mines seven years ago. I head up the safety and sustainable development department at the Chamber.

I consider myself a mining sociologist. My PhD (in industrial sociology) focused on workplace studies and in this case, it was mining. As part of my research, I looked at how teams of mine workers respond to productivity and safety-enhancing initiatives while going about their day-to-day work in the underground mining workplace.

As I understand it, you worked underground at the rockface with the mining teams to get the data you required for your research?    

Yes, that is correct. I immersed myself in the everyday life of an underground mine worker and became part of a production team at a prominent gold mine on the West Rand. For six months, I was part of deep-level underground mining teams and spent time with them for the full production shift. In academic terms, the method I used is called ethnography or participant observation.

So, you worked underground as a miner?

Yes, but I would not become involved in activities that I was not trained for or that was unsafe. I mostly only did housekeeping. Of course, I could not do the hard-manual work like drilling, as it requires a certain level of skill, experience, and training. It is a tough environment. Part of my experience was living in the hostel, eating with the workers, waking up at four o’clock in the morning, and going down the shaft in the middle of winter — a typical day for an underground mine worker. Moreover, I mingled with them at restaurants, entertainment areas, and even played soccer with them after shifts, so I got a good idea of how it feels to be an underground mine worker in South Africa.

There is no doubt that the experience enriched the quality of my research and the data that I collected, and it gave me better insight. Then I went back to Oxford to write it up as my PhD. The book is based largely on my PhD research.

How will your experience enrich the current knowledge about safety and underground mining?

In South Africa, there are still too many fatal injuries in the mining industry. Hopefully, this book can contribute to the mining industry’s goal of achieving zero harm. The content of my book highlights perspectives from the rock face. I believe that these perspectives, and the voice of the workers in the stopes, are missing in the boardrooms. We continue talking about health and safety and zero harm, but the voice of workers at the point of production — the frontline crews and operators — is missing.

And this is the book’s contribution: it highlights the hidden world of underground deep-level workers, how they go about organising production and safety, and how they work together as a team. Furthermore, it touches on the relationships they have with supervisors. There are chapters on supervisors as well, and it shows how management ensures that crews are sufficiently resourced and what these crews require to guarantee safe production.

Has the workforce changed over the past few years?  

Yes. There is a new or millennial generation of miners that is totally different from the older generation in terms of education and how they look at and perceive mining. They have many ambitions, and this requires a unique way of managing them and creating opportunities for upward mobility.

These millennial miners are technology savvy, and they are very particular about how they are managed and how they should be led by their superiors. So, the book touches on change management as well.

In the book, you talk about a concept called ‘planisa’. Can you explain what it is?

Yes, planisa is an interesting concept. It is a mining lingua franca or pidgin derived from the Afrikaans saying ‘ʼn Boer maak ‘n plan’ (to make a plan). Planisa is triggered by a number of work circumstances.

Workers and production teams have monthly targets to meet. For example, if they blast a certain number of metres and they exceed those targets, they qualify for a bonus in addition to their monthly salary. The bonus scheme is structured. It has parameters of productivity, safety, production efficiency in terms of sweeping the broken ore into the ore bins, and all the other actions. When a person is injured, there are penalties in terms of the amount the teams will be paid at the end of the month. Planisa will happen in circumstances when, for instance, the team runs short of material. It may be something that they cannot control, like a delay in the delivery of timber packs to support the hanging wall in the stope.

So, the workers make a plan — they might even steal another team’s timber packs, or they negotiate some form of informal arrangement in adjacent working stations or panels. Sometimes the team would use wire to fix a broken winch because there were no nuts and bolts, which obviously had safety implications. The workers improvise to restore production, and if they get it right, they are regarded as heroes by their seniors. But planisa is a double-edged sword because of the safety aspects. If planisa results in some form of injury or fatality, then the workers are blamed and penalised, even if it is not always their fault — there is production pressure, a desire to meet production targets, and the lure of a production bonus. Planisa can be the result of poor planning by supervisors or senior management. Overall, planisa is an innovative strategy, but that being said, the unsafe aspects of the concept have to be eliminated.

You compare the South African safety statistics with those in other mining jurisdictions like Australia, Canada, and the US. How do we compare?

The South African fatality rate is still very high. Last year, for the first time in 10 years, the industry actually regressed in terms of fatalities, and that is disappointing. Nonetheless, we are making progress, despite the bad figures in 2017. We are edging towards the goal of zero harm in mining. Our fatality frequency rates are comparable with international benchmarks. South Africa’s coal mines are safer than coal mines in the US.

Remember, accidents in South African mines have a devastating effect on the extended families of mine workers. One mine worker takes care of about eight dependents, on average. The devastating impact of fatalities and injuries is catastrophic — families lose breadwinners.

The mining industry closed the year having recorded more than 80 fatalities. Why has the fatality rate increased after a few very good years?

Last year, a large number of seismic-related fatalities occurred. It is concerning that we finished 2017 with more than the 73 fatalities recorded in 2016. The issues of safety culture and behavioural safety still need to be addressed.

What was your first-hand experience when you worked underground? Does the culture of safety, or the lack thereof, still have an impact on the health and safety of underground workers?

Hard-rock platinum and gold mines are still labour intensive. The gold mines’ shafts and infrastructure are ageing. Walking distances to the rock face are increasing, and the risks in terms of depth and fall of ground are now higher than before. The Chamber is doing a lot of technology-related research focussing on mining with nets and bolts to counteract the fall of ground-related incidents and, of course, issues of transport. Mining transport is one of the biggest causes of fatalities. We do look at worker behaviour as well.

Who should ideally read this book in the mining environment?

Everybody really; the operators, all managers. It can also be used for induction and training programmes in the mines, and if it can be translated, the book should be provided to production crews as well — it should be used as an illustrative reference for production teams, supervisors, and mine captains. This book should really be a guideline for each and every team leader, shift boss, mine captain, production manager, general manager, and CEO.

Were you easily accepted by the underground workers?

During the first few days, people were a little shy, but with time they accepted me. They were very welcoming, and I became part of the team. I could speak their language, I am a black person, and we could talk about soccer. Wherever I went underground, I observed, listened, and made notes. I knew when they were happy, and I always knew why they were unhappy. The bonus system was always a big point of discussion, or the shortage of material.

How difficult is it to work in an underground mine? What are the challenges for those guys?

Look, mining at that level (3km) is not for the faint-hearted. It demands an element of bravery — it is extremely hot and you sweat profusely, despite the ventilation. You must crawl in narrow stopes, it is dark, rocks often obstruct the way, and the hard hat is important personal protective clothing to wear on your head. You must drink a lot of water to remain hydrated. It is tough!

Even living in the hostel was a challenge — and the hostels have been upgraded significantly over the past few years. I was out of my comfort zone: the food, waking up so early, going down the cage at four o’clock in the morning in the middle of winter — these things are really challenging. It’s like being a soldier.

When mingling with the workers, what were their main concerns? What did they talk about most often?

The one thing that bothered them and that they were always talking about, is remuneration. They feel it is a hazardous working environment and that they need to be well compensated. If their opportunity to qualify for a bonus is affected, they feel that management is letting them down. They criticised the bonus system often when it failed to meet their expectations.

A big issue at the time of the research on which the book is based, is that these workers were disillusioned with the trade unions — I do mention it in the book. They would often say that the union leaders do not really care about them and are only interested in serving their own agenda.

Is safety a critical issue for the underground mine worker?

Yes, safety is important to them. I do argue in the book that they have a concern about safety.

If they feel it is unsafe, or if they have to complete a task that they feel is not safe and their leader tells them to continue, will they refuse?

No, this is unfortunately something we still need to work on. It is not done at the level that everybody wishes. There is still this carrot stick of production bonuses, trying to meet production targets, and qualify for the bonus. And the miners like to supplement their wages. There are still elements of autocratic supervision; the culture has not really changed that much.

Mining companies need to incentivise safety; some companies are already doing so. Miners must be prevented from taking shortcuts that will compromise their safety. This is where behavioural safety starts playing a role; this is where the book will also make a significant production contribution. We still have a long way to go.

Do you think mines have changed over the past 30 years? Is there still a divide in terms of race — the white supervisor and the black worker?

Mines have changed a lot. The one thing about the underground environment is that it unites workers across colour differences. But yes, I would say elements of the legacies of the past are still there, but it is a lot better. Mines have improved significantly in that aspect. It is relative as well; some would argue that not all mines have transformed and improved. Another angle is that in mines where there are black shift bosses, it is often said that they do not have the same authority as their white counterparts have. However, overall, mines have changed for the better.

What advice do you have for supervisors and mine captains who need to maintain the production rate, but at the same time ensure and guarantee the safety of mine workers? How can they manage and maintain that balance?

First, make sure production crews always have all the necessary resources (tools, equipment, and material). This means resource scheduling, which goes hand in hand with planning for production.

Encourage a culture of reporting accidents, unsafe practices, and even high-potential incidents. Review the system of production bonuses, and make sure it does not encourage workers to hide accidents. Incentivise safety; include your leading indicators such that the crews work optimally and that whatever they do, they promote safe production. That will be the first things that you need to do.

Moreover, acquire the skill of managing team dynamics. Give your crews a voice; make them lead and listen to them. Let them suggest how they can achieve the goals of the team, production section, and the company in general. Make sure you have all engineering controls in place and that they work and serve the desired purpose, and monitor their performance.

You cannot do without the critical engineering controls that may lead to catastrophic events if they are not in place, not monitored, and not managed to the required standard of performance. When mining in a deep-level hard-rock mine, for example, make sure the stopes are supported with nets and bolts. Get the roof support in the stope to the required standards.

Tap into the tacit knowledge of the production crews and operators; there is a lot of knowledge among workers in the stope. The frontline mining teams are incredibly knowledgeable; do not underestimate them. Be visible, talk to the crews, be part of them, show that you care — do not only drink coffee in the office on surface but also make time to interact and converse with different members of the mining teams at their working environment through visible, felt leadership sessions.

Have safety conversations with your crew, and do not underestimate the supervisors. You need to ask whether your supervisors are change facilitators or change resistors. Supervisors are critically important: they are catalysts and they are agents of change in the workplace.



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