Occupational health and safety (OHS) is central to the success of any construction project, and is particularly important to mine construction where workplace risks are often higher and more complex. This is especially true when work is being done in challenging and remote environments, as is the case with construction work conducted by engineering, procurement, and construction management (EPCM) firm Erudite at the Molo Graphite Mine in rural Madagascar.
“The project has, to date, faced many unique challenges owing mostly to the remote, isolated, and undeveloped nature of the southern parts of Madagascar, where the mine is located,” says Sam Mabena, Environmental Health and Safety Manager at Erudite.
“It is also by no means a small-scale venture, making it more complex to ensure that the large number of employees remain safe throughout the project’s lifecycle. But the mining area boasts one of the largest and highest quality flake graphite deposits in the world, and its state-of-the-art beneficiation plant will be worthy of such a grand project.”
The mine itself sits atop 22.4 megatons of graphite reserves and has a planned lifespan of more than a hundred years. Its plant will have a production capacity of 17 kilo-tonnes per annum during the first phase of the project and around 45,000 in the second.
Mabena makes reference to the importance of setting clear, quantifiable, and measurable safety targets when taking on a project of this magnitude.
“We have come to measure our health and safety success on a zero lost-time injury per 200,000 hours worked principle, with the aim to have no serious incidents or fatalities for a 200,000-hour period. Once we’ve reached that milestone, we start the next cycle of incident-free work,” he explains.
“Recently, however, our Molo plant construction operation reached 500,000 hours without lost-time injuries, which is a major achievement. This number includes work done by Erudite employees and the various project contractors who fall under our purview.”
Taking steps to encourage safe working conditions
To ensure that a high standard of occupational health and safety is upheld on the site, Erudite employs a dedicated full-time safety officer to facilitate training, risk assessment, and regulatory oversight. But, Mabena explains, it was important to them to appoint employees, whenever possible, from within the country instead of relying on safety experts from South Africa.
“A local employee will have an innate understanding of the local culture, customs, language, and other demographic nuances of the native peoples. This allows for more effective communication and engagement with workers, ensuring that safety criteria are effectively conveyed and understood.
“It’s also vital to involve the workforce in every aspect of health and safety to establish a sense of ownership and responsibility. Workers need to understand and believe that safety is not something they practice for the company or the client, but for themselves and their families.”
As the project progresses from execution to commissioning, the number of workers on-site fluctuates. During the execution, design, and procurement phases, there are fewer workers onsite, but as the project moves into peak construction periods, the number increases and drops again in the commissioning and production phase.
Erudite’s role is to manage the entire construction programme and oversee subcontractors while ensuring compliance with local legislation. And, in places such as Madagascar, where safety requirements may be less familiar to the local workforce, it is even more crucial for it to engage and empower frontline workers.
One of the early health and safety challenges that remote projects such as this can experience may occur before the first employees are even on-site.
“The availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) was an early but ongoing obstacle we encountered on this project. Some essential safety equipment needed to be sourced from outside the country, causing considerable delays. However, work cannot come to a halt in the meantime, so it’s important to plan ahead and ensure that equipment is procured and delivered in a timely manner.”
Mabena notes that conducting risk assessments is another crucial aspect of safety management. These assessments identify hazards and risks specific to each task and enable the implementation of proper controls to mitigate them.
Notably, involving the workers who will perform the task is essential for effectively conducting risk assessments as they possess valuable insights into potential hazards and can suggest practical safety controls. The subject experts, such as supervisors or managers, should therefore lead these assessments in collaboration with the workers involved in the task, he explains.
Regular safety training also plays a pivotal role in ensuring a safe working environment. Inductions and toolbox talk forums provide opportunities to educate workers about the risks they may encounter and the safety requirements they must follow. Additionally, providing safety management training to all employees enhances their awareness of potential hazards and risks associated with their work.
Ultimately, implementing a comprehensive risk management system that is accessible to all construction site personnel is vital to mitigating and avoiding potential hazards, which is why EPCMs play a critical role in creating a safe working environment.