Home » Occupational Safety and Health and its Consideration in Higher Education

Occupational Safety and Health and its Consideration in Higher Education

afety is the highest goal in a mining operation due to its responsibility towards the involved persons as employees but also in terms of the society. Furthermore, economical risks are closely related to unsafe working standards enhancing the severity of incidents. The mentality for safe and aware behavior needs to be set for all internal stakeholders of mining activities and thus needs to be included in the Engineering education. This paper presents, based on the aim of occupational safety and health, a content-based and conceptual integration in modern higher education as a base for safe mines of the future.

Authors/Autoren: Dr.-Ing. Alexander Hutwalker, Angela Binder M. Sc., Prof. Dr.-Ing. Oliver Langefeld, Institut für Bergbau, TU Clausthal, Clausthal-Zellerfeld

1  Introduction

The aim of university education is to equip young people with the necessary skills and competencies for their professional life. Regardless of the subject area, this means that future developments in the field must already be taken into account when planning the curricula in order to meet the requirements of the labor market. Only in this way it can be ensured that graduates leave the universities with a competence profile that meets the needs of companies and the labor market. It must be considered that a student who currently (2021) starts a university degree will be a part of the workforce until 2065 or longer.

The future cannot be predicted without uncertainty, and so there is always a degree of uncertainty with regard to the relevance of individual courses when creating curricula. However, this can be reduced by intensive observation of the labor market, depending on the respective subject areas, to such an extent that graduates leave the universities well-prepared to start their careers. In order to make a decision for the field of primary raw material extraction, the framework for future raw material projects must first be estimated in order to derive requirements from this.

When these are considered, it can be seen that deeper deposits will be mined in more remote areas in the future, as near-surface deposits near populated areas are finite. In addition, the average size of mines will increase, both for new operations and in currently existing operations due to progressive mining. Regardless of the constraints imposed by the deposit, rapid technological development in areas such as sensors, data processing and communications are having a significant impact on developments in the mining industry. In addition, growing environmental awareness among the general public and, based on this, an increased focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) are having a strong influence on all operations and decision-making processes.

This paper focusses on these developments and how they can be addressed in the mining engineering curricula in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH) in mining, in order to meet the future labor market requirements. Therefore, it will be defined what is understood by the term OSH in the context of this article, and what the status of integration in the field of raw material extraction is today and what it is based on. With regard to the topics and the integration into the educational framework, the implementation of the topic in academic teaching is shown. For this purpose, examples of the mining courses of the Clausthal University of Technology (TU Clausthal), Clausthal-Zellerfeld/Germany, as well as the project SafeMine – funded by the EU within the framework of EIT RawMaterials – are used.

2  The purpose of higher education

First of all, the areas which are to be understood by the term OSH are defined. The German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) defines occupational safety as all measures which ensure and improve OSH protection (1). A similar wording can be found in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (ArbSchG) (2) § 1, which, however, does not apply to companies that are subject to the Federal Mining Act (BBergG) (3). This Act has its own formulations on OSH, and § 61 (1) obliges employers to take the necessary measures and precautions to protect employees and third parties from hazards to life, health and property (2). Further details can be found in the regulations that specify the BBergG. Similar requirements are also applied to companies internationally. In the U.S., e. g., the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) requires under Section 5(a(1)) employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees” (4). In summary, it can be stated at this point that measures to preserve the life and health of workers fall within the scope of OSH. Furthermore, this brief description of legal situations shows that employers are responsible for compliance with OSH measures. However, it is also true that both nationally and internationally, workers are correspondingly obligated to comply with OSH measures.

In order to be able to assess a hazard to life or health resulting from an activity or environment, there must be intensive knowledge of the processes involved and the characteristics of the environment. It follows from this that only persons who are qualified in the relevant specialist area can assess the hazards and derive occupational safety measures. This in turn presupposes knowledge of suitable measures and an understanding of their interrelationships. In mining operations, the identification of potential hazards, especially in new processes and technologies, the risk assessment of activities in connection with them, and the development of suitable occupational safety measures are thus the tasks of qualified mining engineers.

The qualification for this is provided by the mining engineering education for which it is necessary to identify the topics relevant for the future and to implement them effectively in study programs. In the following, the topics will therefore first be described and classified, while a second subsequent section deals with their integration into the educational framework.

2.1  Topics and their context

Mining is the systematic extraction of valuable rock mass areas by humans by using machines. Thus, it can be described as the interaction of humans/organization, rock mass and machines. In this interaction, hazards can arise due to the misdirection of energy, so that OSH measures strive for risk minimization. The aim here is to avoid every occupational accident and every injury, however, measures are defined taking into account the feasibility (ALARP concept) (5, 6, 7).

According to the risk assessment procedure, two targets can be defined for this purpose: reducing the probability of occurrence and its impact. Here, both strong short-term impacts, such as accidents, and impacts of long-term exposures and late complications of short-term exposures must be taken into account. Examples include occupational diseases such as lung damage caused by dusts (pneumoconiosis). Measures to minimize the risks can be subdivided according to the hierarchy of controls, as shown in figure 1. Here, technical measures are generally preferred to organizational and personal measures (T-O-P principle).

Fig. 1. Hierarchy of controls after (8). // Bild 1. Anwendungshierarchien der Maßnahmen nach (8).

In terms of the mining engineering curricula, the measures can be located in individual teaching areas, which in turn are to be arranged according to the interaction of the areas of rock, machine as well as human. As a basis for the definition of measures, geoscience education is necessary, which allows to assess the hazard potential by the characteristics of the rock mass. The control of the effects is part of the rock mechanics, which guarantees the stability by technical planning. In addition to the load of the rock mass, dusts, gases and heat from the rock mass are potential hazards, which are regulated by ventilation (technical/organizational) measures. Another source of all three factors is machinery. Here, however, the goal of equipment engineering is located in a higher hierarchy level. The design as well as the selection of the equipment aims at a technical risk minimization by elimination, substitution, or isolation, respectively, which is complemented by the technical planning. This planning is deepened by situation-related method selection as well as organizational design with methods of mine planning, which are supplemented in the direction of management by mining economics. In order to correctly select the organizational and personal measures that are often used for redundancy in operational activities and to assess their effect, special courses on the subject of OSH supplement the curriculum.

Also the life cycle of a mine has to be taken into account. The pre-mining phase is already described by the planning. The special characteristics of vertical cavities and their construction require special consideration of hazards and measures in the context of shaft sinking and operation. Long-term safety is addressed by measures for removal and encapsulation of hazards in courses on mine closure and post-mining. Significant cross-disciplinary support for OSH is achieved on the one hand through the fundamental topics of engineering basics, law and economics, and on the other hand through the integration of cross-cutting topics such as digitalization and sustainability.

However, knowledge of the specific subject areas only leads to a limited ability to act on the job. Therefore, it is important to qualify the students by the integration into the educational framework as well as the competence orientation in the topics.

2.2  Integration in the educational framework

At least since the beginning of the Bologna process (9), the aim of the higher education is to qualify for a professional career and the labor market, so that it is necessary to develop the competencies for the assessment of hazards and deriving measures for the processes. However, the requirement to qualify for the labor market also leads to the challenge to prepare graduates for jobs of the future. Since it is difficult to foresee which technologies will be developed and used in the next 40 years, it is important to develop the skills of the students that can be applied under future conditions and to develop even more technologies and methods that will make the supply of raw materials safer and thus more sustainable. Based on the aimed qualification level and the specific job profile, the skills must be graded, so that in German academic education a distinction is made between bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

These requirements represent an intended goal in current higher education, but not the current state. Historically, education often aimed at teaching content rather than building competencies. However, major changes can also be seen in the field of safety. Curricula that were strongly focused on the technical area are increasingly being supplemented by safety topics. The operational practice, supported by the prevention work of the workers’ compensation boards, of learning from accidents and near-accidents, first found its way into companies and was later carried into academic training. In the USA, e. g., the introduction of the MINER Act (10) led to a more intensive inclusion of the topic in the curricula of the programs, so that specific courses are offered. The current status for the USA is represented by criteria of the accreditation agency ABET, which require the integration of the topic “health and safety” in the curriculum (11). In addition to this general involvement, degree programs have also been introduced that address the topic with full scope. The introduction of a Graduate Certificate in Mining Occupational Safety and Health at the University of Arizona represents one example (12). Similar drivers that lead to a change in the study content are, in addition to the changes in the legal basis, such as the occupational exposure limits in Europe, the strengthening of CSR, the VISION ZERO (6) called by the workers’ compensation board in 2015, and the introduction of the Mining Principles of the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) (5).

These examples show the possibilities for integrating the topic of OSH into training. On the basis of the analogy with the complex of sustainability, which, like safety, is a cross-cutting issue, the strategies for integration into mining curricula can be transferred so that, according to (13), four approaches can be distinguished:

I. coverage of aspect in existing courses;
II. special courses;
III. intertwining in regular courses; and
IV. deepening in the field.

Two specific aspects of the qualification levels (bachelor, master, postgraduate) are decisive for the selection of an approach for the design of mining courses: the framework conditions of the teaching and the job profile of the graduates. The following section presents the selection for the different stages, which is also summarized in figure 2.

Fig. 2. Influences on the course design based on qualification stages. // Bild 2. Qualifikationsstufen in Bezug auf Einflüsse der Lehrveranstaltungsgestaltung.

2.2.1 Bachelor’s program

The bachelor’s program qualifies students for a job in the raw material industry, so that the goal of the program must be to enable the students to act responsibly in the operational environment based on the knowledge and detection of hazards. Therefore, the basis for risk assessment has to be laid in the curriculum by a special course (cf. II). At the same time, the mining-specific content of the program is only a part of it, since the engineering fundamentals are laid in the course of study. Therefore, special attention is given to the effective integration of OSH-aspects. All other mining-related courses should intertwine the safety aspects (cf. III), since, on the one hand, the necessary mindset can be developed more effectively and, on the other hand, the scope of the subject-specific courses is limited. It should be noted, however, that currently safety is more often addressed in single sections of courses (cf. I) and is not conceptually integrated into the courses.

2.2.2 Master’s program

Based on the competencies of the bachelor’s program, the master’s program qualifies students for the analysis, evaluation and creation of engineering solutions in the most diverse aspects of the mining industry. Specific examples for this are the preparation of risk assessments and the implementation and planning of resulting measures according to the T-O-P-principle in the planning phase of mining activities, and selection of machinery and equipment. The aim is to make safety the motivation for action, to which the integration of digitization and software is increasingly contributing. The range for integration is larger in master’s programs, since the mining-specific content predominates in the curriculum. Nevertheless, a conceptual integration (cf. III) in the courses should be aimed at in order to achieve a holistic interconnection of content and a deeper understanding of the interrelationships. In addition, courses on safety-specific topics, such as mine rescue or rock support technology, offer opportunities for a more intensive study of the content (cf. II). Individual elective subjects, voluntary additional subjects and the orientation of study and master’s theses can lead to individual in-depth study in the field of safety already in the master’s program (cf. IV).

2.2.3 PhD

The PhD represents the third level of the qualification framework and refers to an in-depth examination of a specific field of research. The aim is to demonstrate independent research ability and significant social development through new findings and approaches (14).  However, structured doctoral programs are rarely offered to achieve this goal. In Germany, in the field of mining, the proof of qualification is based on the documentation of research activity within the framework of a (cumulative) dissertation thesis. The process of research activity and qualification can be supplemented by individual courses. Although structured doctoral programs are more widespread worldwide than in Germany, no programs exist for the field of OSH in mining internationally. At the same time, a need for specific further training courses is also identified at this level by international managers (15).

As at all other levels, the needs of the target group and the intended learning outcomes must be taken into account when developing programs. Since the research topics are very specific, the offers must be designed in small sections so that they can be combined into modular and individual programs. Thus, multi-day workshops with preparation and wrap-up phases to deepen the topic (cf. IV) are appropriate.

Since OSH is a cross-cutting topic, the content of the topic can be selected in such a way that it is conducive to doctoral students from different research fields, so that a larger learning group is created, which also supports the development of competencies. The course design should offer space for the individual development of the learners, which is used for the application in the own research area as well as for the reflection of the process. At the same time, the presentation and discussion of one’s own approaches in the group can further develop individual approaches and, at the same time, provide new approaches and ideas for the discussion participants. This approach requires a minimum number of participants, which is often not given for the mining field or its subfields. A cooperation of several universities, also in an international framework, can create such an opportunity, which at the same time strengthens the networking of the doctoral students and thus prepares them for their job.

2.2.4 SafeMine

The structured PhD-program SafeMine largely follows the approach described above. It was launched as a pilot project, funded by the EU within the framework of the EIT RawMaterials Academy as a joint project of four European universities in 2018. The SafeMine objective was to train qualified professionals for the European mining sector in the area of OSH (16). In this program, one doctoral student from each of the participating universities started their research work on OSH-related topics. In addition, in order to create a common framework, multi-day workshops were developed in this pilot project in close cooperation with industrial consortium-partners, in which current and future needs of the labor market are addressed. Examples include special workshops on OSH in tunnelling, ergonomic workplaces in the raw materials industry and ventilation challenges in the context of the electrification of underground mines. To obtain the “SafeMine”-certificate, the PhD-students have to participate in all offered workshops. By opening the courses to master’s students and industry representatives, the content has also been made available to a broad professional audience and can be further developed based on feedback from all areas.

After the pilot phase, it was evaluated how the project could be continued. The relevance of the content was confirmed by all target groups, at the same time formal issues opposed a continuation as a structured PhD-program. Due to the small cohort size, workshops cannot be held several times a year, so international travel for several days at fixed dates is necessary for students. A complete digitization of the program was excluded in the context of the project, as especially elements of experiential learning are core elements of the courses. Since the program is not supported by an organization with the necessary framework, administrative, uniform processes as well as common learning management systems are not given, so that complex individual solutions have to be developed. To ensure consideration in the European doctoral training programs, the program also needs to be accredited, which requires sponsorship. Thus, the intended full certificate as a goal of the structured program is not sustainable. However, as the content was rated as highly-relevant by the participants, the individual workshops will be continued with individual certificates.

2.2.5 In-service training

In addition to workshop offerings that are open to professionals for life-long-learnig, special advanced education courses and study programs offer an in-depth continuing education opportunity especially for people who are continuing their education while working. In these areas, approaches and offers already presented can also be integrated, taking into account the specificity of the target group.

3  Conclusion and outlook

Future-oriented training integrates OSH-issues both thematically and conceptually in all education levels. It thus contributes to responsible action, a safety-oriented mindset and, fundamentally, sustainable mining practices. In this way, it fulfills the standards of legal frameworks and society’s mandate and supports the responsible supply of mineral raw materials to the society.

The engines of mining development do not stand still. Deeper, more complex deposits in remote areas, but also in areas with strong conflicts of interest, require further development of the state of the art. In this context, automation and digitalization reduce the probability of occurrence of hazards. For highly-remote mines, however, the lack of connection to medical infrastructure represents a high motivation to avoid damage by work safety and also to develop effective rescue concepts. The integration of these challenges and the development of situational approaches in academics motivates the students by making them aware of their self-efficacy and strengthens the spirit of innovation, which enables these students to solve tomorrow’s tasks.

The further development of the study programs and their contents must take into account the development and research in mining. Therefore, the mapped topics and targeted competencies must be steadily updated and supplemented by the integration of technology-independent, timeless methods and approaches. The incentive for this further development is the societal desire for a safe and sustainable supply of raw materials, which is expressed by legal regulations and industrial standards.


The SafeMine project received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 17115 from the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT).



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Authors/Autoren: Dr.-Ing. Alexander Hutwalker, Angela Binder M. Sc., Prof. Dr.-Ing. Oliver Langefeld, Institut für Bergbau, TU Clausthal, Clausthal-Zellerfeld