IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Taking Responsibility for OHS in Underground Mines: First-Person Accounts of Managers and Worker Representatives


The aim of this exploratory study is to learn more about the roles of managers and worker representatives in underground mines in Quebec and the context-specific factors that can hinder or facilitate their OHS actions, and to spark debate about what can support them in their roles. The study is based on an exploration of the literature and a secondary analysis of the data collected in a research project on the conditions of onboarding new mine workers (Ledoux, Beaugrand, Jolly, Ouellet, and Fournier, 2015).

The research project involved the participation of 115 managers, worker representatives, miners and operators working in open-pit and underground mines in Quebec. The data, gathered from semistructured interviews of approximately one hour, as well as from observations, were used to produce a first research report that focused on the description of the onboarding processes (Ledoux et al., 2015). First-person accounts from managers and worker representatives regarding their OHS roles and responsibilities were also documented during the interviews, but it was impossible to explore this topic fully at the time the first report was produced (Ledoux et al., 2015). It was therefore proposed to the Association paritaire pour la santé et la sécurité du travail du secteur minier [Quebec mining industry joint OHS association] that a profile of the situation be drawn up, which is what led to this second report.

In order to sketch a more comprehensive picture of the roles of managers and worker representatives, this exploratory study is based exclusively on the interviews conducted at the three underground mines studied. The operation of an underground mine requires a work organization that makes interactions between the various players more difficult and, as a result, entails different challenges. Thirty interviews with management employees, or with others who could be included in that category, four with worker representatives and 23 with underground mine workers were taken into consideration in the analyses. Although the data gathering of the earlier project focused on the onboarding of new workers, a few systematically asked questions concerned the roles of the people interviewed. Beyond these specific questions, the managers and worker representatives also spontaneously provided a great deal of information about the context that can help or hamper them or their colleagues in performing their OHS roles. As these topics were not explored in the same way in each interview, no claims can be made about the results being exhaustive or generalizable. Despite these limitations, using already gathered data helps to make available original information about an industry in which collecting data in the field involves considerable effort and costly outlays (remote locations, difficult site access, etc.) for research teams and mining company staff. The profile resulting from the analyses describes a part of what company managers (especially superintendents and top-level supervisors) or worker representatives experience, and can therefore provide a point of departure for mining industry players and for researchers who might want to undertake studies in this area. The role of OHS worker representatives would benefit from being examined in greater depth in further research projects, to get a better understanding of the main challenges these prevention stakeholders face, the strategies and means they use, and the support they can count on in unionized and non-unionized settings.

The review of the literature, conducted in the first section of this exploratory study, provides insights into the OHS roles of managers and worker representatives, but does not really shed light on the context in which they perform these roles in Quebec’s mining industry.

Analysis of the interview data from the exploratory study shows that superintendents assume a very broad range of OHS responsibilities. Despite the overhaul of organizational structures, it seems that the context of burgeoning activity in the mining sector (at the time the data were collected in 2010֪–2012), labour movement and a shortage of experienced workers subjected superintendents to heavy workloads and considerable anxiety. A tension-inducing discrepancy was noted between what they wanted to achieve and what they were able to do, given their time-consuming obligations and the context-specific constraints. This situation can be exacerbated if superintendents themselves are in the process of taking up new positions.

Supervisors are assigned a large number of duties that they must fit into a rather inflexible time frame that is dictated by the schedule for the raising and lowering of the hoists in the underground mine. On top of daily production uncertainties, a number of conditions, such as the amount of time they actually spend with workers, add up to make it difficult for them to achieve their objectives. They, too, can feel that they have a very heavy workload.

Last, despite the fact the information gathered regarding worker representatives was very limited, the research team noted that they formally took part in a number of OHS activities. Like managers, worker representatives clearly want to be in the field, and their responsibilities may seem to them to weigh heavily from time to time. Their approach is based on trust, co-operation and tenacity, but they also resort to using the CNESST inspection service when they feel that a hazardous situation is not being given due care and attention.

Co-operation between workers and managers is a crucial part of the provisions implemented under various pieces of legislation to prevent occupational injuries. The results show that co-operation is not always easy, as not everyone shares the same vision of OHS and gives it the same priority, which is true with respect to both worker-manager relations and manager-manager relations. Recognition of the value of each person’s role, transparency in relations, consistency in actions and commitment from senior management to obtain concrete results appear to be factors that foster co-operation, according to the personal accounts gathered.

While mines are continuously working to improve OHS, managers and worker representatives also told the research team about problems that persist or conditions they feel are less conducive to fulfilling the expected objectives and ensuring a satisfactory health and safety situation. The example of the development and implementation of procedures illustrates some of these conditions. Furthermore, between the values set out in a company’s strategic vision and the way these values are applied in the operation of the mine and the company’s management style, a certain ambiguity may exist with regard to the priority really given to OHS.

Finally, these analyses have helped to identify some avenues described by the stakeholders themselves for supporting how OHS responsibility is assumed in the carrying out of their respective duties, which need to be explored through further research. With all the limitations related to the exploratory nature of this study, these avenues suggest a need to strengthen support at all levels, to “take care” of people who opt to get involved in prevention and to recognize the need for time and resources so that OHS, beyond the undertakings made in a company’s vision statement, becomes an integral part of all levels of an organization, which includes transforming how operations are organized.