Safety management on multi-employer worksites : Responsibilities and power relations in the mining industry

Abstract: The focus of this thesis is on the division of legal responsibilities for occupational safety management on multi-employer worksites in the mining industry. The empirical basis is a study conducted between 2013 and 2016 consisting of interviews and observations focusing on primarily managers, supervisors, coordinators and safety specialists from a Swedish mining company and a number of its contractors. Besides this, interviews were also conducted with an inspector from the Swedish Work Environment Authority (SWEA) and workshops were arranged involving industry representatives. Additionally, a document analysis was performed focusing on work organization, safety and regulatory matters. The theoretical framework focuses mainly and broadly on the consequences of inter-organizational complexity and power relations between organizations and between social actors.The results show that three key aspects characterize the division of legal responsibilities for safety management: 1) the main responsibility for managing safety is employer-specific and cannot be shared (e.g. between two separate companies) and entails specific formal tasks that must be performed, 2) everyone involved on multi-employer worksites has an extended duty to communicate and cooperate across companies in safety-related matters, and 3) the responsibility for coordinating work and broader safety measures is connected to one specific employer, usually the main client company itself by virtue of the work being conducted within its facilities. Although seemingly straight-forward in the legal demands being placed on specific actors, the matter of the division of responsibilities and what they should entail in practice had been a specific focus area for the mining company, as well as for the mining industry trade association and SWEA from an even broader perspective. The mining company had also taken a number of initiatives with the ambition to clarify these issues on their own multi-employer worksites in accordance with the legal requirements. As for the relations between the mining company and the contractors, these were characterized by an asymmetry of power with a difference between being affiliated to the company or a contractor in terms of the status and rights each affiliation entailed. This ultimately had an impact on contractor managers’ and supervisors’ ability or willingness to communicate with the client on safety-related issues.The conclusions of the thesis are divided into two main themes. The first theme, undermined conditions for employer responsibility, highlights that the main employer responsibility for managing safety may become eroded on multi-employer worksites, something that can be viewed from three distinct but interrelated perspectives: 1) the core-periphery structure characterizing multi-employer worksites, 2) how the different legal responsibilities relate to each other and the power asymmetry between organizations, and 3) the relations between the social actors involved in formal safety management in practice. The second theme, client company initiatives and blurring boundaries, underlines that the ambition of the mining company to clarify responsibilities meant that other issues related to power relations became downplayed or unaddressed. The dominant position that the company and, by extension, its managers, coordinators, etc., typically had also led to them occasionally intervening in the internal processes of the contractors, highlighting the importance of considering the consequences of blurred organizational boundaries due to longstanding outsourcing arrangements.An overall conclusion can be drawn that the dynamic, unfolding relations between the client and its contractors complicate the division of and adherence to legal responsibilities for safety management. This is a particular challenge facing policy and regulatory development going forward, not only in relation to the mining industry but on multi-employer worksites in general where workplace safety is especially important to consider.