How do mine workers search for and find worksite hazards?

by Brianna M. Eiter, Timothy Orr, and Jason Navoyski

Researchers at NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) are studying how stone, sand and gravel (SSG) mineworkers search for and find hazards in their work environment. We believe that new research is necessary to identify novel ways to improve mineworker’s knowledge, skills, and abilities related to detecting worksite hazards and assessing risk to empower them to make decisions that most benefit their health and safety.    

Background on hazard recognition

There were 122 fatal injuries to mineworkers at Metal/Nonmetal mine sites between January 2010 and December 2015 (Department of Labor, 30 CFR Parts 56 and 57, Docket No. MSHA-2014-0030). According to Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, one way to address this rise in fatal injuries is with an increased focus on “daily and effective workplace exams to find and fix hazards” (MSHA, 2015). Evidence suggests that workers struggle with identifying worksite hazards and accurately assessing the associated risk (Carter and Smith, 2006). To help the industry prepare its workers to perform more effective workplace examinations, NIOSH is increasing its education and outreach efforts to help workers recognize and address hazards at their worksites with the goal of reducing fatalities and incidents in the mining industry.

Hazard recognition is the understanding that a condition or behavior can cause harm (Bahn, 2013). Risk perception is an individual’s assessment of how risky a situation is, and research has shown it can influence decision making related to job safety (Hunter, 2002). Hazard recognition represents a special challenge for mineworkers because of their diverse activities that involve the use of complex heavy machinery, equipment, and processes that take place in a dynamic, challenging environment (Scharf et al., 2001).

Both hazard recognition and risk perception are critical skills for all mineworkers because they contribute to effective workplace examinations. Previous research in these areas indicates that these skills are trainable (Kowalski-Trakofler and Barrett, 2007; Barrett, Wiehagen, and Peters, 1988). As one example, the context of the pictures used during training can lead to differences in hazard recognition abilities. The results of one study (Kowalski-Trakofler and Barrett, 2003) indicate that mineworkers who trained with pictures showing only a hazard (see Figure 1) recognized fewer hazards during a later hazard recognition task than mineworkers who trained with pictures showing the same hazard within the context in which it typically occurs (see Figure 2). These results suggest that learning about hazards in the context in which they occur — e.g., location or work activity — helps mineworkers recognize them more often later.

Increasing realism in hazard recognition exercises

One of the goals of the current NIOSH research project is to understand how mineworkers search for and find hazards at the work site. While previous studies had mineworkers search pictures for hazards, the search task was artificial and limited because the pictures usually only showed a single frame of information. Our aim was to create a hazard recognition task that more closely parallels — or simulates — the hazard assessment or workplace examination the mineworker performs at the start of their shift at the work site.  We did this because we wanted the mineworker to feel immersed in our hazard recognition task and perform it as if he was performing a hazard assessment or workplace examination at his own work site.   Research indicates that having mineworkers simulate an experience (e.g., donning or changing an SCSR in a smoky environment) not only adds to the realism of the simulated experience, it also increases engagement in the task (Galvin, 2008).

To increase the realism of our hazard recognition task, we created 360 degree panoramic pictures (see Figure 3). A Gigapan (Gigapan Systems, Portland, OR) robotic camera mount was used to capture three rows of 8 24 megapixel pictures. These images were stitched together to form a seamless panorama using PTGui (New House Internet Services BV, Rotterdam, The Netherlands). By using 360 degree panoramic pictures, we are able to better simulate the worker actually performing a workplace examination at a mine site while searching for hazards.

Creating the panoramic pictures 

To create the panoramic pictures, we first looked to MSHA fatal reports and nonfatal data to identify examples of the different types of hazards mineworkers are exposed to during their workday. We also worked along with subject matter experts (SMEs) with extensive experience in surface mining to make decisions about where we should take the pictures at a typical surface limestone mine. SMEs included former MSHA personnel, NIOSH researchers, and safety professionals from the mining industry. We made final decisions about what hazards to include and where to take panoramic pictures during meetings held at the NIOSH Pittsburgh research facility. The locations where we took the pictures included a shop, the plant, in the pit, and along roadways and haul roads. We took eight pictures at each of these locations for a total of 32 panoramic pictures.  Some pictures contained no hazards, while others had as many as seven hazards.  We grouped the hazards included in the pictures using the MSHA category of Accident Classification. Given this means of categorization, we included a variety of hazards — e.g., electrical, handling material, powered haulage, etc. Table 1 shows the count of each type of hazard we included in the panoramic pictures of the pit.   Overall, there are 102 hazards depicted in the panoramic pictures.

We took all the panoramic pictures at a surface limestone mine in the northeastern United States, establishing a relationship with safety professionals from the mining company and working with them to take the pictures. Before traveling to the mine, we created storyboards — visual and verbal representations used to plan pictures ahead of time — to anticipate which hazards could occur at specific locations. As an example, storyboards for plant pictures included hazards related to de-energizing and lock out/tag out because a usual location for the beltline is in the plant (Figure 3). We were able to stage the majority of hazards included in the panoramic pictures because of the positive relationship built with the mine’s safety personnel. The hazards we were unable to stage — because it was impossible to remove a bumper block at the crusher, or it was unsafe for a mineworker to operate a bucket lift without fall protection — were created using Photoshop (Adobe). SMEs reviewed all of the panoramic pictures to make sure that the overall pictures reflected something that could happen at a typical surface limestone mine and to ensure that the hazards looked realistic.


In order to give mineworkers a more realistic experience while performing a hazard recognition task, NIOSH created 360 degree panoramic pictures for a laboratory research study designed to better understand how mineworkers search for, find, and assess risk for hazards during a workplace examination or hazard assessment. In the next issue of this magazine, we will describe the study and report differences in hazard recognition abilities for new mineworkers, experienced mineworkers, and safety professionals. Based on these results, we will provide suggestions for ways to improve mineworker knowledge, skills, and abilities related to work site hazards and risk assessments, so that they are able to make decisions most beneficial to their health and safety.

For more information about ongoing NIOSH research studies, visit our website at

Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of NIOSH.

Bahn, S., 2013, “Workplace hazard identification and management: The case of an underground mining operation,” Safety Science, Vol. 57, pp. 129-137.

Barrett, E. A., Wiehagen, W. J., and Peters, R. H. (1988). Application of stereoscopic (3-D) slides to roof and rib hazard recognition training (Vol. 27, No. 9210). US Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Mines.

Carter, G., and Smith, S.D., 2006, “Safety hazard identification on construction projects,” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, Vol. 132, No. 2, pp. 197-205.

Hunter, D.R., 2002, “Risk Perception and Risk Tolerance in Aircraft Pilots,” Federal Aviation
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Kowalski-Trakofler, K. M., and Barrett, E. A. (2003). The concept of degraded images applied to hazard recognition training in mining for reduction of lost-time injuries. Journal of Safety Research, 34(5), 515-525.

Kowalski-Trakofler, K., and Barrett, E., 2007, “Reducing non-contact electric arc injuries: An investigation of behavioral and organizational issues,” Journal of Safety Research, Vol. 38, No. 5, pp. 597-608.

MSHA, 2015, Mine Safety and Health Administration. “MSHA announces increased education, outreach and enforcement to combat increase in NMN mining deaths.

Scharf, T., Vaught, C., Kidd, P., Steiner, L., Kowalski, K., Wiehagen, B., Rethi, L., and Cole, H, 2001, “Toward a typology of dynamic and hazardous work environments,” Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, Vol. 7, No. 7, pp. 1827-1842.

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