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After the Chilean mine disaster – How HR got it wrong

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Image: www.nj.com

The first anniversary of the Chilean mine disaster is an opportune time to take a closer look at the key aspects of managing human resources, and how we can avoid some of the mistakes that were made during the Chile mine incident.

On August 5th, 2010, a cave-in trapped 33 miners in a copper and gold mine 700 meters below the surface of the Atacama Desert in Chile. What followed was a tremendous recovery effort which received a great deal of international attention and advice. The recovery effort resulted in all of the trapped miners being recovered by October 13th, 2010.

During the incident the mining company and the Chilean Government asked for advice from both High Arctic Explorers and NASA scientists on how to deal with the miners once they were rescued. Sadly, their analysis was flawed – in part because they asked the wrong people. Astronauts and lone explorers or scientists are normally in location by choice. The miners were, in effect, taken prisoner by the mine. They weren’t with people they would necessarily have chosen to be with, nor did they choose to be trapped there.

When they surfaced, the miners were exposed to a full ‘media circus.’ They did not get to decide whether they wanted to shake hands and have their photo taken with various politicians and company representatives. This phenomenon, wherein others feel the need to meet former captives, is commonly referred to as “touching the stone,” and can have a severe detrimental effect on victims. The question that needs to be asked, therefore, is whether the meeting is ‘for the benefit of the victim or the politician’. If it is the latter, a better solution would perhaps be to postpone the meeting until a later date – when the decision can be made by the rescued individual.

When they were rescued, the miners also met their families. This is also not necessarily a good idea; particularly, in this case, for one miner whose extra-marital affair was exposed by the event. After meeting numerous politicians and their families, the miners were then taken to a hospital for medical and psychological triage and released. For some miners this early release was again a disaster for them and their family. For example, after being released, one miner was taken straight to a welcome home party – an event he clearly was not ready to deal with, as evidenced by the fact that he felt the need to “escape” from it. Other miners also had family issues that needed resolving that they were not yet equipped to handle.

What was missing from this rescue scenario? Experts that would have pointed the miners towards the 3-phase model of reintegrating hostage victims back into their work and lives, and psychologists who were trained to work in this area. These experts would have been able to provide support, not only for the returning victims, but also education for families on what to expect and how to manage their loved ones’ return.

For example, the use of a neutral location at which the miners could prepare to reunite with their families, coordinate media exposure, and be given a chance to express their opinions regarding their wants and needs would have been more in keeping with the 3-stage model of reintegration, and would have provided the miners with a buffer – both physical and mental – that they might have employed while getting used to the idea of their freedom. Instead of slowly exposing them to the outside world, however, the miners were exposed to an overload of sensory experiences which left them vulnerable to the media and other issues.

If the situation had been assessed correctly, officials may have heeded the words of Terry Waite, who noted that coming out of captivity is like coming up from a deep sea dive. The longer you are under, or the worse the treatment you received, the more decompression stops are required. Sadly for our Chilean miners, they were never given this opportunity, and as a result, some of them have suffered emotional and psychological embolisms.

If we had done it this badly in a Canadian event, what would have been our liability?

John Proctor
Integrated Human Risk Solutions

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John Proctor

CD CISM Vice-President at Global Cyber Security
John Proctor is one of the leading experts in human risk and travel risk management in Canada and is recognized internationally in this capacity. He has been responsible for the development of all of the federal captivity survival programs currently in use in Canada today and has helped several other countries with their own systems. Read more
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