Ann Masse, our global Head of Health, Safety, Environment and Security, spoke to our editorial team about health and safety in the age of COVID-19.
Editor: Hi Ann. Since we usually begin every meeting at Rio with a safety share, can I ask you for one today?
Ann: Absolutely – top of mind for me is the importance of keeping up with our routine health check-ups during the pandemic. Although doctors have put in strict protocols to protect patients, evidence suggests that many people are putting off their health appointments because of concerns over the virus. But the risk of putting off appointments can be much greater than the risk of going, and many non-emergency and routine consultations can be done over the phone or online. If something doesn't feel right, please get it checked out. If you do have a condition that needs treatment, there is often a better chance of quicker recovery if you seek medical attention as quickly as possible.
Now – more than ever – we need to pay special attention to our mental health too. That’s something we’re particularly focused on across the business.
Editor: We’ve been living with COVID-19 for over a year now – how has our response changed over that time?
Ann: In short, it hasn’t: When COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic, we put strict protocols in place around the world, in line with government guidance as well as advice from leading medical experts. All of our operations and offices have adopted a set of screening measures, such as health questionnaires and temperature checks. And in many locations, we introduced virus screening too. We closely track the situation in every region where we operate, and adapt control measures as needed, in line with government directives. We are closely monitoring the worrying resurgences of the virus such as we are seeing in India.
We know it’s a really hard time for a lot of people, so we are also asking our leaders to keep an eye on the wellbeing and fatigue of their teams and offering support to anyone who needs it. And we are encouraging everyone to focus on their own wellbeing, so they can stay resilient as the pandemic wears on.
Now that vaccines are available, we’re also supporting government vaccination campaigns including setting up vaccination clinics near our operations in some regions including the US and Canada.
Ed: You mentioned we’re keeping a close eye on changing risks around the world – with operations in 35 countries, how do we stay on top of that?
Ann: Firstly, it’s about being vigilant – even with progress on vaccines, we’ve maintained strict protocols around hygiene, physical distancing and screening measures like temperature checks, including in regions that are currently low risk. We all remain vulnerable, with a growing number of variants of the virus, while we are still learning about the efficacy of vaccines.
We also have a specialist in-house team, including our Chief Medical Officer, which is across the latest health research and advice, and whose expertise helps inform our policies and control measures.
And we are working with a data analytics specialist and using artificial intelligence to help us anticipate emerging COVID-19 geographic risks so we can adjust controls in those regions – when employees can return to offices, for example.
Ed: On technology, what role do you see it playing in managing health and safety risks more broadly?
Ann: Well, actually it’s an important part – and in many ways it starts with looking at how technology can take people out of harm’s way in the first place. We use automation and robots to do some of our high-risk work like inspections in confined spaces and operating heavy mobile equipment. And we look for ways to engineer out risks too. One example I’m really proud of is how our Weipa bauxite team in Australia designed a custom-made mechanical arm to open and close tailings valves, reducing the risk of injuries.
Data is also fundamental. We use health and safety performance data to identify patterns and early signals to prevent safety incidents. For example, we track and monitor trends in critical risks that have the potential to cause fatal incidents. Using this information, we’re then able to find ways to strengthen our controls and minimise these risks.
On the flip side, we’re also looking at the health and safety risks that come with increased use of technology – including automation – across the business. We are in the process of rolling out our functional safety standard, governing safety controls like testing and regular maintenance for technology such as obstacle detection and collision avoidance systems in autonomous trucks.
Ed: 2020 was our second fatality-free year. I must be honest with you, Ann, I know that’s an important milestone – but shouldn’t it be a given?
Ann: My goal is to have every job in every operation safe enough for you to let your family member perform the same job – that’s what drives me personally.
Yes, 2020 was our second fatality-free year and both the severity of injuries and our all-injury frequency rate (AIFR) have fallen significantly over the past decade. These are good outcomes – and metrics like these help us improve. But we know we have a lot more to do. The reality of these numbers is that people in our business are still getting hurt. Every workplace injury is preventable - so, we absolutely must do better. We want everyone to go home safe to their families, period.
Ed: How are we driving further improvement?
Ann: To eliminate fatalities, we need effective systems to mitigate risk coupled with a strong safety culture. In the past, we’ve focused a lot on embedding and improving those systems – like Critical Risk Management, which is a tool we use to verify that fatality prevention controls are in place before starting a task. We also introduced the PFI (potentially fatal incident) rapid sharing and learning system, which ensures lessons from PFIs are shared directly with all leaders across the business. This year, we’re really focusing on strengthening our safety culture across the board, by training employees on best practice and coaching our leaders on things like effective pre-start meetings.
Ed: You mentioned mental health earlier too.
Ann: There’s no doubt that it’s been a difficult time for many people – the pandemic has profoundly affected all of us in different ways. Sadly, some people may be grieving family and friends. Others may have struggled with isolation or juggling the challenges of working and home schooling.
We know many of our employees made significant sacrifices this past year – often being away from families and loved ones for long periods of time – to allow our company to continue to perform during the pandemic. So, we’ve really stepped up the resources we provide, like an on-call service that lets people return home for health or family emergencies. We also have a first-rate employee assistance programme – so employees can talk directly to someone who has been trained to help. And we continue to have peer support programmes in place at our operations – we’ve done so for about 20 years now – with specially trained employees playing a pivotal role in supporting their colleagues at a local level.
Ed: You’ve seen your share of health issues throughout your career, including epidemics like H1N1 and the SARS and Zika viruses. What have you learned?
Ann: That when everyone – governments, companies, communities, everyday people like you and me – works together towards a common goal, we can overcome just about anything. We are all part of the solution, and we can all play a part. And, no question, we’ll get through this.