Western Australia's mining sector is the lifeblood of the state, but it's not without scrutiny. Learn how the industry is using research to undergo a cultural revolution to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its workers.
Western Australia's mining sector is the lifeblood of the state, but it's not without scrutiny. Learn how the industry is using research to undergo a cultural revolution to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its workers.
In this episode, David is joined by Professor Sharon Parker and Dr Patricia Todd to explore how the government-backed Landmark Study can address serious cultural and safety issues in the mining industry, including sexual harassment, discrimination, poor mental health and new tech challenges. If you work in the WA mining industry, find out how you can get involved in the study.
Centre for Transformative Work Design
Future of Work Institute
MARS Landmark Study Worker Survey
Professor Sharon Parker is the John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Curtin University, and Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, which is part of the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University. Sharon is a world-leading researcher on the topic of work design, proactivity in the workplace, mental health, job performance and the impact of technology on the future of work.
Dr Patricia Todd is Chair of the Mining and Petroleum Advisory Committee (MAPAC), which advises the WA Government on matters relating to work health and safety in the mining and petroleum industries. Previously, Trish was Professor of Employment Relations and Head of the Management and Organisations Discipline Group at The University of Western Australia.
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Host: David Karsten
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This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.
David Karsten (00:09):
I'm David Karsten, standing in for the wonderful Sarah Taillier. Western Australia's mining sector is the lifeblood of the state. In 2020–2021, it contributed $100 billion to the state's economy and provided more than 70,000 full-time jobs. But the industry has a reputation for harbouring a hyper-masculine culture and is facing challenges presented by new technologies and the changing needs of workers. To address these issues, the state government and Curtin University have partnered together for the ‘MARS Landmark Study’, a project that aims to improve the health, safety and wellbeing of mining workers.
To explore this topic, I was joined by Professor Sharon Parker and Dr Patricia Todd. Sharon is Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtin University, and is project lead of the Landmark Study. Patricia is Chair of the Mining and Petroleum Advisory Committee. We talked about the Landmark Study and how its findings can create a step change for one of the nation's most critical industries.
If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the show notes.
Sharon, what is the MARS Landmark Study and why do we need it?
Sharon Parker (01:23):
The MARS Landmark Study is part of a broader project, called the MARS Program, and this is a whole of government initiative in Western Australia where government really recognised two things. First of all, the importance of the mining sector for our economy. But at the same time, there was evidence suggesting the need to look more deeply at some challenges in the sector. So just briefly, we did a study on mental health of FIFO workers in 2018, and that really highlighted that about one third of FIFO workers were struggling with distress – so depression and anxiety, which is huge and that was more than other sectors.
A second source was a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2020, called Respect at Work. And that highlighted that sexual harassment, harassment, bullying sorts of behaviours were disturbingly prevalent in workplaces, but even higher in the mining sector. That actually helped to trigger the enough is enough parliamentary inquiry that was completed in 2022, and that focused on the experiences of FIFO workers, but women, in the mining sector here in Western Australia. And that, you will remember at the time there was a lot of media interest, there were some shocking stories actually, that was another, I guess, instigator behind the MARS Program. So the importance of the industry, plus the fact that there was some evidence or some challenges in the sector, really led to this MARS Program of which the Landmark Study is one important piece.
Well, what was the response from industry to all of these various surveys and studies? These were quite, in some cases, horrifying findings.
I think there was a fair amount of shock for some people in the sector. I think there were others that were saying, "About time some of these challenges were getting more attention". But that might be something Trish, you can comment on as well.
I think in some ways the response is what you'd expect it to be, that nobody can say anything other than this is dreadful and it must change, and there were a lot of public statements from company leaders to that effect. As Sharon has said, it has been known for quite a while, there was a lot of very unacceptable behaviours happening and these pieces of research did bring it to the fore and force a mirror being put up to the companies.
Did the results and the publicity surrounding those findings, I guess, enable an environment where people in the industry on the ground felt comfortable enough to actually talk about their own experiences?
Undoubtedly, and if you have a look at what's happening now, there are more reports coming in of, to put it mildly, inappropriate behaviour. And while the enough is enough report focused on women, it's inappropriate behaviour against men as well, really anyone who's a bit different to the very male norm. So with these reports being made public and the discussion going on, it does encourage other people to speak up who are very fearful about speaking up.
Can I just touch base on that issue? So the enough is enough parliamentary inquiry, it was noted that there were 23 reports to the police of sexual assault in the mining sector. But what we know is that's of course just the tip of the iceberg, because those are people who've actually had a very serious offence and been willing to take it to the police, and we know there's many, many more people who are not willing to do that for many reasons. So look, there is some evidence that really suggests this issue needs to be taken seriously. And one of the advantages of the survey, and I'll talk more about the survey shortly, that we just launched yesterday, our workers survey, is it's a fantastic opportunity to say what are people, everybody who works in the mining sector has access to this survey and what are their experiences? What is their lived reality? So it's a real opportunity to get beneath that tiny tip that we've seen visibly, to understand the bigger picture that everyone is experiencing.
We do want to go there, but before we do, just to double check, the report that you and your colleagues published in September, 2022, was that the enough is enough?
No. So as part of our Landmark Study, which was driven partly by that enough is enough report, we've done a few things. One is we've done an analysis of mining research all over the world. The Bankwest, Curtin Economics Centre did a sort of scoping analysis, by comparing mining sector with the top ASX companies. And both of those pieces of evidence supported the earlier evidence that I mentioned, to suggest that mental health tends to be poorer in the mining sector and sexual harassment tends to be higher. So again, lots of different pieces of evidence triangulating together to suggest there are some particular challenges in this sector.
When this sector, within an Australian context, was compared to the same internationally, what was the finding there? Is the same sort of thing happening internationally?
In mining, yes. And I think it's partly because, and we'll talk more about this later, I'm sure, mining is a sector dominated by male workers and a quite strong masculine culture and that is a factor in behaviours like sexual harassment. Many years ago I did research on sexual harassment in South Yorkshire in the UK amongst police officers, and it was a huge issue at that time. And again, very dominant masculine culture, traditionally carried out by men. And it's often in these sort of sectors where we do see greater prevalence of harassment sort of behaviours and less tolerance of people being different. So I think that's what we are seeing happening partly in the mining sector.
Well, Trish, how can the mining industry use these early findings across those various studies, to make changes in their workplaces?
Look, I think they're responding to those findings plus the other reports, the earlier reports, which have occurred recently. And so it means they really do have to respond, even though this has been known for a number of years. The responses at the moment, really the evidence we're getting is anecdotal and that's why this survey is so critical. A lot of companies don't want to reveal what they're doing and what they're not doing. They're most secretive, I think, with some of them, in terms of revealing detail. Good stories companies will tell you about, and you see stories in the press about improvements and accommodation and things like that that they're wanting to talk about. But a lot of the information we're getting is anecdotal and that tends to therefore be at one end of the spectrum or the other, so the good stories and the bad stories. And as I was saying before, we are getting significant numbers of reports from workers in the sector speaking up, doing the me too, this has happened to me and I want to report it. So we are really getting quite contrasting evidence.
In terms of what companies can be doing, there's a lot of information about the problems and they can start addressing those and we are seeing evidence of what I would call the easy things to address. So for instance, security issues, just some horrifying stories in terms of people being able to access accommodation, one key that opens all rooms or something like that. So we have seen immediate responses from some companies to address those and improve security. So lighting at night between workspaces and accommodation. Now they're the easy things to do, they're physical things that can be addressed straight away. A lot of the problem is related to workplace culture and of course, mostly the same people are working there and one training session over two hours doesn't change everything. So it's a very, very long process. But if companies at least familiarise themselves and take on board what the issue is and genuinely embrace it, then they can start working with, for instance, the MARS Study and the whole array of training programmes that are on offer there, it's a start.
You're highlighting a scenario or a context that most of us who've never worked in a FIFO situation and probably not familiar with, and that it is almost a society within itself really. It is a community that is self-contained and if there is any cause for conflict or a scenario where somebody is feeling a little victimised or is victimised, they often have to work alongside those people and live with the perpetrators as well. That is a unique set of challenges really for an industry to address, isn't it?
It is. And then add to that that a very high proportion of the people working on mine sites, on contract basis, so they're not direct employees of the company and many of those people who are on a contract basis are seeking permanent employment with the company. So that makes it even more difficult for them to be able to speak up if they're not happy about something. That's another layer.
And if I can just build off that, the fact that some people are on contracts, for example, some of the things that can emerge, if somebody is an alleged perpetrator of some of these serious offences, what can happen is they can be sacked from that particular company but then rehired by another contracting company and so the person is still in the workplace. So these are also some of the challenges that need to be looked at.
From an industry perspective, is, I guess, the legal ramifications one of the main reasons behind the secrecy surrounding what they are doing to implement change?
I think it's one issue, but I do think that there is a hesitancy amongst a number of the companies to talk about what they're doing. I don't understand why anyone would be secret about their policies and so forth and what they've adopted, but some of them, Sharon, I don't know how you're finding it, but some of them are quite reluctant to reveal at an individual company level and they tend to rely on things like the Chamber of Minerals and Energy to be the spokesperson for the industry.
I think there's variation. So there are some companies we know who are out there really working hard on this issue, but there are some who are not doing anything. We've done a survey which we haven't released yet, but we went to the human resource occupational health and safety people and related in organisations and asked them, what are you actually doing? And we'll release that finding soon, but there is variation, some companies really doing a lot, working hard and others not. And that's partly what we want to see, does that translate into the actual experiences of the workers, and that's that next step. One thing I'd like to say, and I've seen this generally, not just in the mining sector, because we do a lot of research on mental health in the workplace, there is a sort of fear sometimes of organisations to say, "Oh, we don't want to survey our workforce because if it's bad we'll be in trouble".
In fact, it's the opposite. It's considered a positive step by regulators to understand the problems that you face. So in fact, if you survey your workforce and you find out that there are challenges, that is a positive step and that can be the first step on a journey towards change, as Trish has mentioned. So organisations should not fear surfacing this information, in fact, trying to hide it will go against them. So really encourage companies to embrace this survey too because it can be incredibly helpful information for them to start on this journey, if that's where they are, or if they're further down the track, to sort of evaluate how is what they're already doing making a difference.
We'll get onto that survey shortly, but we're going to pause for a quick break and we'll be back right after this ad.
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Trish, like so many other industries, mining is undergoing huge technological changes. There has been a shift to automation, algorithms and greener tech. Now what are some of the safety challenges the industry is seeing due to new technologies and how will it address these?
Yes, and look, I'm sure people have seen pictures of the automated trucks, these massive trucks seemingly driving themselves. And everyone should be forewarned, don't stand near them because they can't see you, so they'll happily run over you. And look, on a positive note, new technologies can address and improve existing safety issues. They can remove humans from hazardous environments. They often are addressing existing issues, but they do bring up new safety concerns. In WA, the mining sector has been ahead of most other industries in terms of their automation of machinery and so forth. A few years back now, they developed a code of practice alongside the WorkSafe mining area on safe, mobile autonomous mining in WA. And that is a very good code that is drawn internationally on best practice and standards and so forth, and there's very little like it elsewhere.
You always start with, well, who controls it? So with the technology, who's actually controlling it? And there are other issues that come up, if you think about this massive truck going around and around and around and the fact that it doesn't respond to a person standing down there, there was a very unfortunate accident recently where it ran over a small truck and that's showing an obvious hazard. Autonomous machinery is only as good as how it's been programmed and that comes back to a human being, so there's that aspect. So you've got hazards in terms of interaction between any autonomous machinery and human beings, and ensuring that there's safety there. You've got the area of cybersecurity, the internet, and if you think about where mining is and our experiences when we go out away from Perth, the internet is not the greatest. Well, the mining companies often protect themselves in terms of satellites and so forth, to ensure internet coverage, but we also need to be sure that nobody can hack that. So any autonomous machinery, there's got to be awareness and consideration of the cybersecurity.
You do start obviously to get an over-reliance on this machinery and therefore the diminution of human skill. And I use the example slightly tongue in cheek, okay, so the truck breaks down, is there anyone who knows how to drive this thing anymore? So you do have that area of we need to think through what do we want in terms of outcomes and not total reliance on the machine. You've got concerns often with autonomous machinery, it ends up with just one person working on their own and that brings up new risks. It's pretty boring if you're just working on your own and just watching some sort of control board, that raises safety issues. And then you've got areas like monotony and can be a lot of stress for an individual working on their own and what they're actually controlling.
So you've got to be very sure that they're well-trained and that they do actually have control and fail-safe arrangements. I guess, and I know this is an area that Sharon has done a lot of research on, work design must always retain a human focus, start from the human being and then work out the design from there. So perhaps I can hand over to Sharon.
Well, I have a question at that juncture actually, and that is, well, where is the line between control and personal responsibility for the person that is actually in that situation controlling everything?
I think that's quite a serious legal question because if, for instance, to use the example of the truck, if the truck goes rogue, who's responsible? If it's not something that the controller did or was able to stop, it then goes back to how that piece of machinery was programmed. In terms of health and safety responsibility, we do include designers of equipment in that area, overall area of responsibility. So if you happen to head up the design firm, so now are you taking responsibility, you 're going to be looking at your programmers and saying, "Well, what wasn't right?" So yes, there's quite a long chain there of responsibility.
Can I just pick up on that? I'm just writing a paper on that at the moment, so can't let that go. Trish is absolutely right, and we've seen this with self-driving cars. One of the big obstacles to self-driving cars is figuring out who is accountable if there's an accident. And it's exactly the same with these automated systems, who is accountable, and ultimately who is liable? There's a strong tendency to blame an individual operator, for example, the person who might be overseeing the control of machinery on the site, but in fact, that operator might have very little control or influence over how the system actually works.
So then you've got to look at the design, you've got to look at the data, if it's an algorithm, that was used to train the algorithm to make the decisions, you've got to look at the organisation and what investment they made into really understanding the impact of the automation, et cetera. So figuring out where the accountability lies actually is not easy. And currently, as Trish said, it's a legal challenge. In our paper, we're talking about networks of accountability, for example. So it's not going to necessarily be one operator, it's a whole chain of people that have helped get the machine to that point.
I'm thinking that the nature of, I guess, job contracts and employment contracts is going to have to adapt as well. It is uncharted territory on so many levels, isn't it?
And I think what's really important in this space around technology, is to understand and properly evaluate the impact on all parties. So often technology is in introduced for efficiency or to do those hazardous tasks. So there can be good motives behind the implementation of technology, but just as important, what's the unintended impact on the quality of people's work? So Trish mentioned sometimes work becomes very boring, sometimes people are held accountable for decisions that they actually didn't implement, and Robodebt would be a good example of that. So companies have really got to be, one, proactive and think about and plan for these sorts of issues. And second, they've got to evaluate what happens when technology's introduced in case there are these unintended consequences for human workers, for the end users of the system, and all of those other sorts of things that were not intended, but they happen because these are complex systems that are being introduced.
It's a time of great change for the industry. And as part of your landmark study, you've recently launched a survey, Sharon, where you're seeking feedback from mining workers about their perceptions of mental health, respect and safety in the workplace. Can you tell us a bit more?
Yeah, we just launched the survey yesterday and it's what we're calling the worker survey. And as I mentioned before, we mean all mining workers, we mean contractors in mining, we mean managers, we mean frontline people, everybody who works in the mining sector in Western Australia is encouraged to do the survey. We really want to understand what is the actual experience of the workers. And Trish mentioned earlier, we've got a bit of data, but we don't really know, for example, how prevalent is sexual harassment in the sector. But we want to look at other things too. We want to look at leadership. What is the quality of people's everyday support and leadership from their bosses? We actually know that's hugely important. If you experience an incident but you don't feel that your boss will support you, you're not going to report it. Or if you're in a culture where you think there'll be retribution if you speak out with an issue, you're not going to speak out with the issue.
So we need to look at the culture, we need to look at things like the work design, what are people's levels of workload and fatigue and how might, in the future, technology impact on those sorts of outcomes. So we'll measure both the amount of harassment people do or don't experience, who's experiencing it, which groups are most at risk, we'll measure mental health and wellbeing, we'll measure safety. And then we also measure all the things that we know from research and from our conversations in the sector, might influence those things because we're really trying to understand what will make a difference in this space.
I'd like to just at this point acknowledge the support of academic advisors that we have on the project. So we have people who are experts in sexual harassment and mental health and psychology and all sorts of things, but we've also had a fantastic industry panel. So we have representatives from employer bodies, such as the Chamber of Minerals and Energy in Western Australia and others. We also have Lifeline and some mental health organisations, and we also have union representation, for example, Union WA. So that means the survey has really already had a lot of input from experts, so we can be really confident that it's capturing the most important things.
Sharon, in terms of your timeframe and I guess the sample size for this survey, what are you looking at there?
Yeah, it's open for six weeks and we're looking for thousands of workers to do the survey. In the end, the survey's going to be used to help create good policy and practice, so we want lots of people to do it because if it's only a couple hundred, we're not going to be sure if that's the couple hundred that are most happy or most unhappy, and we're not going to be able to act on those findings. So remember that this is part of this whole of government initiative with a serious commitment from government to make things better, so we need thousands of people to be doing the survey so we can be really confident we've got the genuine experiences of most of the workers.
In terms of engineering policy following the survey, how long will that take?
That will be, there's two levels, I think. One is there's a sort of government policy level, so what are the policies, are they working? Those, of course, take significant amounts of time to change. But there's also what are the specific organisations doing? And Trish mentioned some very simple things people could do, like change the accommodation, but there are also some more challenging things like changing the culture that take more time to be honest. So some things hopefully will be done quickly, some quick wins as we call them, but there'll also be some more substantive change that takes years, this is not going to be changed in five seconds.
You've both been experts in your fields respectively for a long time, and you've both been casting your gaze upon the mining industry for many years. Have we got something to look forward to? Are you hopeful?
I'm always hopeful. From my perspective, in terms of health and safety in mining, from my perspective as a researcher and from my perspective as a person who lives in WA and wants to always see a better society in which we live, this survey is so critical. It's very, very rare to have a longitudinal study like this, where you do a survey now and you try to be able to paint a detailed picture about what's going on. And then is it three years time?
Three years time, another survey. And we'll all be holding our breaths at that point because that survey will tell us whether anything has changed. And I would hope in three years, three years is still a comparatively short time for the type of cultural change we're trying to bring about, but you've got to have data like this to be able to assess whether things are getting better. You asked me at the beginning what were companies doing? Well, my very simple answer to that is we only know this much. We know anecdotally what they're doing, but we don't have a detailed picture. And we're not really wanting to identify one company over another company, but we're wanting to know to what extent across the industry are they responding and that's what this survey is going to help identify.
Can I just add, if there's an individual mining worker out there listening to the podcast who might be thinking, oh God, not another survey. I'd just like to encourage them to use this as an opportunity to have their say, it's really important, it's 30 minutes, not going to be done on the back of an envelope in two seconds, but it's really important and comprehensive. So just really encourage them and just remind them to have complete faith in the confidentiality of their responses because people need to feel psychologically safe. We talk about that in workplaces, they need to feel psychologically safe that when they do this survey, their individual perspective is not going to be blasted over the front page of the newspaper. So we can absolutely guarantee that no individual responses will ever be made public. It's only the research team that will ever see individual responses. So the survey is 100% confidential. I just wanted to make that point because it's a natural fear that people have, especially when we're asking such sensitive questions that really affect people's lives.
Well, I bet that you're looking forward very much to six weeks time, when you've got a lot of data to work through, and hopefully in three years time, we'll have you back to talk about the next survey.
Maybe before then, the results of this one.
Trish, Sharon, thank you very much for coming in today.
Thank you so much, David, for inviting us.
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