Aussie Shakers–A Collision of Social Media, Perceptions of Safety, and Corporate External Relations

No doubt at the Australian Mining Safety Conference next month in Brisbane one of the hot topics of discussion over wine, spirits and canapés will be the firing by Barminco managers of fifteen  employees at Gold Field’s Agnew Mine north of Kalgoorlie.
The 30-second You Tube hit has garnered nearly 1.5 million views, and the firing (and permanent ban from all Barminco operations) has been publicized in over 300 media outlets. There is a 2,400 strong Facebook fan page promoting their re-instatement and within the Mining Industry Professionals group  on LinkedIn (90,000 members) the discussion has garnered nearly 200 comments, by far the most popular topic. There, 99% comments disagree with the decision taken by Barminco. However, one senior environmental, health and safety officer for Barminco stressed that the media has not reported the whole facts.
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Barminco provides underground contract mining services, and actively promotes their success by at the Agnew gold mine from increased productivity. No local managers have provided explanations or interviews about their actions, but the client Gold Fields has dismissed rumors about contract pressures factoring into the decision. Dismissal letters reportedly state that “they had breached safety and undermined Barminco’s reputation”.
Two of the axed miners have provided interviews. One, 28-year old Stephen Dixon (stripped to his underwear in the video), has launched an unfair dismissal court case. Another, Brendon Spanhake, is simply desperate to find another job and laments: “I regret it for sure – I wish I never did it”.
The knee-jerk reaction handed to the eight dancers and seven spectators challenges modern strong-arm approaches to safety. The LinkedIn discussion provides several interesting points I regurgitate here:

 

  • Apply the “Reasonableness Test”:Would Barminco have acted in absence of the public visibility? (probably not)
    • Did the employees willingly violate a statutory regulation or requirement and willingly impact their safety and/or the safety of others such that a person or persons could have been seriously injured or killed? (probably not)
“…in relation to crib breaks, you don’t switch off and ignore directives and obligations because you’re having a break, this is a ridiculous concept in a mining environment…Their actions were not very career enhancing. If you work in mining…you really need to understand your obligations and constraints, they would have known these, and still chose to ignore them; there were consequences to that. This is not about a them-and-us management decision, or an ill-informed corporate decision; it in absolutely no way represents any abuse of power; rather it is about stepping out of line in a very regulated and generally safe industry, which they with full knowledge chose to do…the decision was the correct one.”
  • Stress and boredom are two common root causes of accidents and “Harlem Shake team building” is now a legit corporate exercise.
  • Lack of Management Control is the main issue (possibly because of recent new CEO). Lack of communication and trust by both parties (workers and managers) produced a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game with detrimental outcomes for both parties (lost jobs, bad PR).There is a double-standard as Barminco ignored a previous breach of safety standards in 2007
    • Barminco fears social media and cannot control those risks
    • Could a positive link to video been possible, ie. ‘our worker’s love their job so much they are dancing at 2:30am’
  • “Clearly they run a strict, rule based system with severe punishment for non-compliance, and clearly its an utter failure.”
Information available suggest Barminco was fixated on the perception of safety in and of itself, and could not incorporate the public threat of social media embarrassment into any sort of positive outcome.
Here is a list of pro’s and con’s I made to summarize the debate, which will now surely disappear into the courts…
I personally think the video is hilarious.
Pro Miners
· Fun, de-stressing, laughable dance
· Positive motivator and viral hit, good for employee moral
· Company logo removed
· Safety equipment (boots, cap, lights) worn
· Safety considerations made before event
· Productivity schedule not impacted (probably more productive)
Against Miners
· Actions were horseplay, plain and simple
· Online publicity would bring company into disrepute
· Permission to go underground and supervision procedures may have been subverted
· Minor safety infractions (beneath drill jumbo, one worker’s safety gear off)
· Mobile phone/video recorder brought underground, minor violation
· Client (Goldfields) would receive blame/embarrassment
· If accident had occurred (extremely unlikely), the disaster would have been very costly to Barminco and Goldfields
· Without action, similar stunts may escalate risks
I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate for the managers, but I personally believe their decision was the wrong one, and it will be proven in the courts, in the “cribs”, and across social media.
The challenge of social media in the mining industry underpins this story of the Agnew Mine Harlem Shakers. Blogger Jamie Ross optimistically suggests mining companies pursue online social media in order to build their reputations-identity, network, and share knowledge:
“Mining companies need to be aware tat their staff, stakeholders and customers now have unparalleled ability to share their thoughts and perceptions of their organization with the entire world, whether positive or critical. But in return, companies are also provided with the ability to immediately and widely support or rebuke these thoughts to the exact same audience.”

 

EduMine offers an online (and occasional live webcast) entitled Social Media and Mining. Course author and UBC M.Eng. grad Zoe Mullard explains one success:
“One company that has taken advantage of social networking tools to engage shareholders is TVI Pacific, a mid-size mining and mineral exploration company with various global operations. The use of social media is allowing the company to increase transparency and share information, as they will post answers to questions that are emailed and host discussions on their Facebook page. Through online conversations and disclosure on their social media forums, they have been able to ensure that shareholders have access to answers and to correct and timely information, without having to wait for third party stock news sites (such as Stockhouse) to disseminate the information.”

 

I believe social media is critical for companies to engage with aggressively, if not least because mining opponents have already done so successfully. The Aussie miners have demonstrated not only the multi-faceted perceptions of safety and need for positive communication and trust, but they have also revealed the vulnerability of a mining company to social media. But social media will not go away, and I am excited to see what new opportunities arise for the mining industry to get creative in forging new ways to work, share knowledge, and be responsible agents of mineral development.

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