Macho, risk-taking miners make industry less safe, consultant warns – by Lisa Wright (Toronto Star – June 9, 2011)

Lisa Wright is a business reporter with the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion.

There’s been a lot of debate lately about the Toronto couple trying to raise a so-called “genderless” baby by not revealing the child’s sex. But what about genderless miners?

Mines would be safer places to work if men weren’t constantly pressured to be one of the boys, says Dean Laplonge, an offbeat mining industry consultant who advises companies on how masculinity affects the gritty business of mineral extraction.

Laplonge, who has his PhD in cultural studies and lives in Australia — which, like Canada, is heavy on resources — argues that the safety goals of mining companies are fundamentally at odds with the cultural demands faced by men to be “macho risk takers.”

“Peer pressure (on men at mine sites) ensures safety is only for sissies,” says Laplonge, 41, a director of the international communications consultancy Factive who is visiting Toronto.

“For most of them, it’s vital to portray themselves as being strong, tough guys. This is a safety issue since they can never show any vulnerability or weakness,” he says.

“And taking risks when you are around machinery and highly toxic materials is not a good thing.”

The injury rate in the Canadian workplace for men is nearly double that for women, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

About 85 per cent of employees in the mining sector are men, so the solution to improving safety obviously rests with men, not with women, Laplonge argues.

“It’s not a man-versus-woman thing,” he says, although some companies have wrongly assumed that adding women to the mix is a quick fix to decompressing the testosterone-fuelled environment.

Industry watchers note women are often better truck operators and take care of their machinery better than men in mines. But also, based on anecdotal evidence from companies he’s worked with, Laplonge found women end up trying to be one of the boys, too.

He admits the concept of focusing on typical gender behaviours doesn’t sit well with hardcore miners who’ve spent a good chunk of their lives underground and whose identities are tied to this mostly rough-and-tumble landscape.

Laplonge’s firm provides workshops for middle-level managers at mining companies to assess their awareness of gender issues in the workplace.

His clients include the department of mines and petroleum in Western Australia, BHP Billiton, Teck Australia (owned by Vancouver-based Teck Resources Inc.) and Worsley Alumina.

In Ontario, recent statistics for the mining industry actually show steady progress in safety performance.

According to preliminary 2010 statistics released earlier this year, the Ontario mining sector’s lost-time injury rate was 0.5 days per 200,000 hours worked last year, compared with 0.6 days in 2009 — a 17 per cent improvement.

In 2010, 16,200 employees worked about 28.6 million hours in total in the mining industry. The total medical aid frequency was 4.5 per 200,000 hours worked, compared with 5.8 in 2009 — a 22 per cent improvement.

Most dramatic was the reduction in severity of incidents. Last year, there were 12 lost work days per incident, compared with 74 days in 2009, an 84 per cent improvement.

Jean Vavrek, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metals and Petroleum, says the industry’s strong safety record flies in the face of Laplonge’s assertions about the dangers of masculinity in mining.

“I don’t see that in mining in Canada, and I don’t think you can generalize on it,” he says.

“We have a culture here of safety first. Our male and female miners are both among the most safety conscious in the world.”

In fact, statistics showed mining was the second safest industry in Ontario behind education.

The average lost time injury rate for all sectors in 2009 was 1.3. Mining was significantly better than the average and safer than the electrical industry, pulp and paper, forestry, health care, construction, agriculture and transportation.

Vic Pakalnis, who holds the Kinross professorship in mining at Queen’s University, says health and safety at mine sites is determined more by company leadership than by gender.

“The company’s safety culture is far more important than whether you’re male or female,” said Pakalnis, who was a senior ground control engineer at a Falconbridge mine in Sudbury in the 1970s.

“Back then, the macho, devil-may-care attitude was very much in effect. But the Ontario Mining Act eventually came in and forbade them from boisterous behaviour.

“Our industry used to kill 20 to 30 people a year back then. Now, if we have one fatality it’s a very big deal.”

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website:–macho-risk-taking-miners-make-industry-less-safe-consultant-warns