De Beers
An employee signaling to a large dust suppression vehicle at Venetia mine

De Beers Group’s commitment to safety is truly unique. This is the viewpoint of the company’s principal safety lead (for the Group) WILLEMIEN POTGIETER who took up the position in May this year.

Her opinion is well informed and supported by extensive engineering and safety experience across various heavy industrial sectors which she will apply to the diamond major’s global suite of operations with the intention of achieving Zero Harm, she tells LAURA CORNISH.

Potgieter’s approach to safety falls on the back of qualifications in electrical engineering, project management and engineering safety management.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 10, 2019
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She has worked for the metal, pulp and paper, chrome, petroleum and mining sectors, applying her knowledge of engineering into safety leadership roles.

Safety-focused managers rarely offer a technical background but this has enabled Potgieter to approach safety differently and has ultimately led to her career successes in the field.

Holistic learning for achieving zero harm at Debswana mines

Having been exposed to a situation in her early career days that could have resulted in her own and a colleague’s fatality, Potgieter committed herself to applying safety techniques and approaches to the industries she has worked in and believes Zero Harm is a realistic goal for any high-risk based industry, including mining.

“If an individual is injured it is because they do not know or understand the risks associated with the environment they are working in. Employers have legislative duties that require them to provide that knowledge which if implemented correctly can achieve a no injury environment. With the correct procedural processes in place, this also applies to situations that employers can’t control,” she starts.

Potgieter’s style to ‘engineering a safe environment’ for employees is the perfect fit with De Beers, whose focus on safety lies not only at an operational level but starts with senior management.

“Our leadership team, from the De Beers Group CEO Bruce Cleaver down, has made safety its business and this approach has resulted in company with a solid purpose, focus and direction – to mine without injury,” she continues.

“The work De Beers has spent the last two years (in particular) on safety is an example for the mining sector. The company’s incorporation of systems and technologies to enhance safety – including proximity detection systems for people and vehicles as well as its traffic management plans – are world-class practises,” she states.

With the responsibility of driving safety across the entire Group’s operations in Canada, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, Potgieter must understand the commonalities between the mines as well as their unique operating environments and challenges and apply her knowledge into a model which every employee can follow.

CEO Safety Summit to drive safety to new heights

It is De Beers’ twice-yearly Safety Summit that Potgieter is passionate about in helping drive her safety focus for the company.

Initiated in 2017, the Safety Summit brings together a diverse range of colleagues from the Group’s executive committee, general managers, safety and sustainable development leads and safety line managers from Element Six, midstream and upstream to discuss how De Beers can achieve Zero Harm.

Initially intended to take place once a year, the priority to deliver on the objectives set out during each summit has seen the company reconvene a second time every year to ensure safety deliverables are being met.

Potgieter attended her first CEO Safety Summit in August – the fifth since its introduction - and is excited to be heading up the next step processes in driving the ultimate goal of achieving no fatalities or injuries on site.

The summit honed in more closely on six focus areas identified in the last summit – leadership and culture, critical control management/fatal risk prevention, capacity building, learning and sharing and contractor management.

These areas will be built into a framework, each with their own priorities and outputs.

“Importantly, all of the initiatives and actions we outline must be measureable and put into systems with the aim of creating sustainable methodologies that support the framework – a roadmap with objectives, and actionable tactics which can ultimately be embedded into our digitisation environment.”

The safety head reiterates the importance of mindful leadership and engagement which was reflected at the summit.

“Caring and collaboration is as important as the steps and actions taken by each individual and is a clear component reflected over the course of the summit.”

Preparing for the next summit in January

The steps to be taken in preparation for the next summit are clear and will see Potgieter facilitate co-design sessions for all roadmaps with each operation.

This will reduce resistance to change, ensure a clear alignment on deliverables and help build relationships and encourage knowledge sharing.

“Our frameworks will be established and 50% of the co-designed session work streams will be completed by January with the intention to have all the co-designed sessions completed by August 2020.”

While the steps taken in building a safe business is a work in progress that De Beers is delving into with thorough attention and commitment, Potgieter notes that the implementation of actions and initiatives are taking place in parallel to the CEO Safety Summits.

“We are not waiting for completed frameworks to begin implementing actions but are driving initiatives to improve our safety every day.”

“Improving safety is an ongoing process and an area that receives priority and attention every day.

The Safety Summit is designed to refine and perfect our processes to ensure that every worker’s safety is never compromised,” Potgieter concludes.