Steven D Sandbrook, Owner & President
“Things do not change; we change”—Henry David Thoreau.
It’s little past two in the afternoon, and the sun is beating mercilessly down on the barren rocks dotting the mine and the haul roads bereft of any vegetation. But deep down, long-winded tunnels lead to scores of miners working in the dark, dusty, and hot or at times damp cavernous places with limited airflow in search of nature’s valuable minerals. Presenting a stark contrast to the scene on top, the stakes are pretty high for the men toiling far underground.
The mining industry, as we know, is a high-risk, high-hazard workplace, and for a good reason. Mining accidents can occur due to many reasons; toxic gas leaks, explosions, collapsing of mine stopes, or malfunctioning equipment are just a few of the many causes where potential danger lurks. Over the years, the mining industry has taken many safety measures, and a slew of regulations are in force to establish a safe working environment. The focus had for long been on traditional methods of safety—boots, hard hats, and safety glasses, among others—although these measures are essential and mandatory. Yet fatal accidents and loss of life continue to happen in the unpredictable mining environment. The crucial question looms large: What can be done to improve the safety of miners?
As a thought leader in mining, Steven D Sandbrook, president and owner of Eagle Mine Safety, has a unique take on achieving safety excellence.
“It should be people first, not safety first,” says Sandbrook. Coming from a generation of miners and having been in the trenches of the mining industry for decades, Sandbrook believes the industry is ripe for change and is high time it stepped away from the typical ‘safety first paradigm.’
He brings to bear more than four decades of experience as a safety professional in the mining industry. He is purposefully dedicated to enhancing the protection of people, property, and the environment by providing effective leadership and instilling the value of safety in the workforce.
With Sandbrook at the helm, Eagle Mine Safety, a recognized leader in the mine safety and health field, provides consultations in the areas of safety training, operational audits, industrial hygiene surveys, perception studies, change management, program development, and citation litigation and expert witness testimony.
Making the Imperative Shift Happen
The ‘People First’ approach, Sandbrook explains, is not a program on what is safe, nor is it instructions on how to follow safety procedures. Instead, it focuses on providing individuals with information about safety and the skills to make safe choices in the workplace and at home.
“Safety is a moral issue and in the modern context is about people, cultures, and the behaviors created within. We have to think forward and start looking at safety more from a psychological standpoint to persuade people to be safe,” he points out.He draws attention to the research by Dr. Vincent T. Covello, Director, Center for Risk Communication, on what defines trustworthy people. It is not the familiar catchphrases—competence, expertise, dedication, or commitment—that trump, but caring and empathy.
Safety is a moral issue and in the modern context is about people, cultures, and the behaviors created within
“The moral side of safety also taps into caring and empathy as people need to understand that they have to perform safely not just for themselves but for all those lives that they will impact positively and negatively. Their actions have a widespread bearing on those around them if they have an incident, almost like a ripple effect,” explains Sandbrook. In July of 1987, Sandbrook witnessed a horrible incident unfold right in front of his eyes, and much self-reflection went into what could have been done better to prevent it. He says, “The depth of one’s integrity is rooted in the foundation of one’s personal pride, professional morals and commitment to excellence. When you have integrity and you’ve got a good feeling of self-worth, then change, or rather shift does become easier for that individual.”
Typically, when people get injured or killed in a mine, it is commonly called an accident (unforeseen, un-planned sudden release of energy causing loss), but in reality, it results from someone knowingly doing something wrong, which is an incident (reasonably foreseeable, un-planned sudden release of energy causing loss). “Most often we deal with incidents, not accidents,” states Sandbrook. “Whether it is an incident or an accident, we have to figure out where that failure came from and I would guarantee you that it came from a person.” It more often than not stems from an individual’s belief that what they are doing is acceptable and not something illegal or dangerous, which commonly points to a systemic failure within the organization.
According to Sandbrook, the fundamental question is how can a person be motivated always to do the right thing, even when no one is supervising? Although the workforce adheres to basic safety guidelines, they frequently do it incorrectly. For example, a mining worker required to wear a harness may wear it loosely to show that he is complying with the laws. Sandbrook believes that it is critical to understand what makes people tick as individuals and as a group, capitalize on that information and focus energies into getting these behaviors to not change but shift, which is relatively easy to achieve. However, he says it takes a good solid three to five years to start seeing the needle shift from the old school safety to a more modern safety process.
Moving the Needle in Safety
In the journey of culture transformation, seven typical reactions to change occur in an organization and an individual. The first reaction is being shocked, followed by confusion, denial, despair, understanding, acceptance, and the seventh - the culture shift. “And to realize this change, not only the workforce, but the executive leadership also has to participate in the training process,” he remarks. The corporate philosophy of safety is often not delivered downstream, and the workforce gets mixed messages on the leadership’s commitment to improving safety performance.
With ‘People First,’ Eagle Mine Safety promotes active caring by the leaders and within the teams. It’s about putting a very high value on safety and personal safety and building it into the everyday practice of individuals and within the organizational fabric such that it becomes a part of their core values. Active caring is displayed when workers can raise issues with superiors in meetings or training sessions without fear of retribution.
Sandbrook personally meets clients and listens to their concerns and issues about operational safety performance. The ensuing needs assessment throws light on a truckload of valuable insights that include findings on systemic failures on safety equipment availability, nonfunctioning of the preventive maintenance function, equipment breakdowns, injuries occurring during repairs, increased damages, and high accident rates at the end of the month, among others.
It should be people first, not safety first
He also carries out a perception survey followed by a one-on-one interview with all the participants to unearth all challenges and causal factors that detrimentally impacts safety.
Sandbrook strongly believes in building connections with the mining workforce through open, face-to-face, and transparent communications and winning their trust, making it possible to understand them and encourage them to follow safety protocols.
Eagle Mine Safety has developed various unique safety management training seminars and programs to increase safety at mining sites and encourage miners to adopt safety procedures and effectively follow the regulations. Unlike the canned programs available, each program evolves constantly and is customized to clients’ needs. Eagle Mine Safety offers management workshops, which comprise a series of “call to safety” boot camps to coach and assist the workforce in understanding the importance of safety. The firm has created numerous innovative mentorship programs that encourage mine managers to put people first to tackle safety issues. The program starts with safety fundamentals and works its way up to more complicated difficulties in the mine safety business.
‘Soaring with Eagles’ is a motivational program that emphasizes the importance of safety and educates managers on training their personnel and impart skill development. Furthermore, a program called ‘Out of the Nest Learning’ was created solely for hourly employees, focusing on employee empowerment and skill development.
One of Eagle Mine Safety’s more rigorous workshops, called ‘Screaming Eagles,’ aims to train individuals about the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and litigation management. Mining personnel gain knowledge on how to manage notices/litigations, maintain and verify legal budgets, expenses, lawyer fees, docketing, and so on.
The Holistic Vision
“If we can make safety a core value and help people understand that it has to be a part of their lives, not only at work but also at home, then you’re going to have a successful outcome,” affirms Sandbrook. The people-first approach to safety translates to increased production and employee morale and decreased accidents. After three years, mining organizations can see the needle on safety move to 30-40 percent reduction in accidents and reaching up to 75 percent in five to six years timeframe. The employee turnover too substantially goes down as people are less likely to quit out of frustration.
The company has grown in leaps and bounds just by word of mouth as in the relatively small industry, the results speak for themselves. Sandbrook, who is deeply passionate about mining safety, says he has no plans for retirement. “If you love what you do, you never go to work a day in your life, as they say. And it is really truly part of me,” he quips. On the business front, Sandbrook envisions expanding the business into the physical security realm and, as an offshoot get into project management. He also foresees doing more expert witness testimony in the future, as he loves working in the legal field.
In the long haul, he envisions to pass on his vast knowledge and experience of mine safety and hand over the reins of Eagle Mine Safety to someone who shares his zeal for safety and understands his more profound vision. With his steadfast commitment to safety excellence, on a concluding note, Sandbrook says, “I want to be able to pass the baton to a person who has the same vision and moral compass pointing in the right direction.”