Underground Mining and the Internal Responsibility System

In 1976, Dr. James Ham introduced the concept of the Internal Responsibility System (IRS) to Ontario in the Report of the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines footnote 17. The Ham Commission led to the coming into force of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) in 1979. The OHSA provides for the establishment and maintenance of the IRS, for example by setting out specific duties and functions for workplace parties. As the “birthplace” of the IRS, mining has continually studied IRS concepts and, although underground mining workplaces have unique characteristics that affect how the IRS is manifested, the experience in the mining sector may be useful to other sectors.

With this Review, the mining sector had another opportunity to examine the concept created nearly 40 years ago.


Although the language in the OHSA was shaped by the concept of the IRS in the Ham Commission Report, the Act does not reference nor define the Internal Responsibility System nor does it specifically state that a section of the OHSA relates to the IRS. However, those sections of the OHSA that relate to the responsibilities and rights of the workplace parties are commonly thought to be the “IRS” sections of the Act.

Ham outlined the role of the workplace parties that contribute directly to the Internal Responsibility System in identifying and controlling workplace hazards that can lead to injury and illness. However, he did not describe the roles of other groups who also contribute, such as the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. The Review also heard that, in practice, the IRS has been applied inconsistently within the mining sector – perhaps because of the lack of a common understanding of how the IRS should function. The Review explored whether there is an opportunity to strengthen the understanding of how the Internal Responsibility System should work and help it realize it’s potential.

What We Heard

During the consultations, the Review heard a variety of views of the kinds of workplace practices that support an effective IRS, including:


The role of the mine manager in creating and maintaining a culture that fosters worker participation and identifying and mitigating hazards is key to an effective IRS. The Review heard repeatedly that a single individual in a position of power and influence who is committed to resolving health and safety concerns and who believes in genuinely empowering a worker to participate and engage, can have a dramatic impact on the strength of the IRS.

Effective Enforcement

Subject matter experts emphasized the importance of multiple layers of checks and balances to ensure safety management systems are working correctly. For example, in New South Wales, when a high-risk hazard is known in the mining industry, the mine is required by legislation to have a plan in place to control the hazard. To ensure the control plan does not erode, it is continuously monitored internally by worker representatives and is subject to third-party external audits every 24 to 36 months. The multiple layers of checks and balances help prevent latent failures. As Ham noted, “Any internal system of direct responsibility will be imperfect and requires audit, not because of any inherent defect in form but because it is a human organization in which conditions of work and concern for the well-being of persons create grounds for tension.”footnote 18 

No Reprisals

For the IRS to work effectively, workers play a key role in identifying safety concerns. For a worker to fulfil that role, the process must be free from any direct or subtle acts of reprisal against the worker by any of the levels of management. Unfortunately, the Review heard examples of where this process did not function properly or successfully in Ontario mines. The theme of reprisals was a common theme in many presentations on the IRS.

Knowledge Transfer and Organizational Memory

Given that a large percentage of the workforce will retire over the next few years, a great deal of collective health and safety knowledge may be lost to the sector. While individual mine sites will have to develop their own processes to retain “organizational memory” over the next five years, the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development and the relevant health and safety partners can also play a role by distributing pertinent safety information. Newer workers will not have the same level of knowledge and work experience as older workers, so the health and safety system should build the capacity needed to support the transfer of occupational health and safety information.

A Common Understanding of the Internal Responsibility System

Over its year-long effort to develop recommendations to strengthen the IRS in Ontario’s mines, the Review heard two opinions about the value of a common description of the IRS. Some people strongly support defining the IRS while others strongly oppose it, and both sides firmly and genuinely believe their point of view will strengthen the IRS in the long run. The management side believes that, to improve the system, there must be a clear understanding of the IRS, the goals to be achieved and the methods to reach these goals. The labour side believes that defining the IRS risks confusing the roles, rights and responsibilities specified under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Best Practice Guideline for Underground Mining IRS

The workplace parties are currently developing a best practice IRS guideline for the underground mining sector. Once completed, this guideline will reflect the consensus statement of the employers and workers on optimal workplace practices. It will be a significant and tangible expression of the collaborative work done by labour and employer organizations to find a common understanding of how the IRS can best be expressed in the underground mining sector. The Review believes this guideline would be a good starting point for further discussion on the Internal Responsibility System.


The Review’s findings are grouped into three categories, each of which is essential to a well-functioning Internal Responsibility System.

1. Increase Safety Knowledge throughout the Mining Sector

Given the expected turnover in the mining workforce, the mining sector has already turned its attention to retaining site-specific operational knowledge. To help this process, the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development and the relevant system partners should increase the amount and type of information it provides to the industry for posting in the workplace and sharing with joint health and safety committees.

The ministry’s current policy on issuing Hazard Alerts is to only alert the sector about new or unique hazards. The Review heard from both employer and labour representatives that they want more information from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development on significant incidents, critical injuries and fatal injuries. Even if the information is repetitive, it will serve a useful purpose by highlighting potential trends. This practice will be particularly helpful for new workers who lack experience and an historical perspective on risks: they will benefit from repeated reminders of the outcomes of uncontrolled hazards.

In addition to specific incident notifications, the workplace parties would like more aggregate trend information made available. This type of information would help identify emerging trends and provide a warning signal of issues that needed attention. It would also help the parties put the incidents in their workplace in the context of the sector as a whole. "Failure to heed warning signals" is identified as one of the 10 pathways in Quinlan’s report Ten Pathways to Death and Disaster. Quinlan found health and safety management systems often didn’t give "sufficient attention to warning signals of low-frequency high-impact events" and "high-potential incidents are known precursors to many catastrophic workplace events and... need to be investigated and assessed individually as well as in aggregate or as subgroups over time to identify trends."footnote 19 

2. Effective Reporting Mechanisms

While some stakeholders felt that workers should raise their health and safety concerns first with their supervisor, others were concerned that such a requirement would limit workers' participation in the IRS, especially if the relationship between the supervisor and worker is damaged, and/or the worker fears reprisals. In their view, the ability of the worker to take concerns to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development and the joint health and safety committee must be understood and respected.

One way to support worker participation in the IRS is to ensure loopsthat effective reporting mechanisms are in place to allow workers to raise issues, and learn the outcome of their report. For example, processes that require internal reporting and increase worker representation and participation can empower workers in a meaningful way, which benefits the IRS and improves health and safety in the workplace. Better communication from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development and other system partners – through hazard alerts and other tools -- can also encourage worker participation as can a well-designed management of change process.

3. Increase Enforcement

Most workers who addressed the subject of the IRS felt their ability to influence and strengthen their organization’s IRS could be better supported by Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development enforcement practices. In the view of labour, the current roles of worker representatives and joint health and safety committees have become marginalized compared to the roles envisioned by the Ham and Burkett Commissions. As a result, many of the checks and balances put in place for the IRS have been eroded. Workers expressed concerns that the IRS has become dependent on the personality and moral engagement of a single individual in the form of the person "in charge".

In their view, external enforcement practices are a necessary component to ensuring a healthy IRS in an underground mining environment. This concept is not new: the Ham, Burkett, Laughren, and Richard footnote 20  Commissions all reinforced the crucial role of enforcement in helping the self-regulatory system established under the OHSA function effectively.

Strengthen the Internal Responsibility System

The Internal Responsibility System is the underpinning of the Occupational Health and Safety Act; therefore, it is essential that the workplace parties and the health and safety system clearly understand what it is and how it should function.

Both labour and employer organizations agree that the elements of the IRS are embedded in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Therefore, an effective IRS requires, as a minimum, full compliance with the OHSA. Both groups also recognize the importance of outside support for the IRS. Without the contributory elements of the IRS, both employer and labour organizations believe the IRS would eventually weaken and fail.

However, they had a different perspective about the IRS. A clear understanding of these different points of view and their potential impact on health and safety will help the health and safety system in its future communication and work with the workplace parties.

The information and opinions gathered in the course of the Review will aid in developing a common understanding of a well-functioning Internal Responsibility System.


  • 6.1 The Ontario Mining Association to work with labour representatives to develop an Internal Responsibility System best practice guideline as an industry benchmark, to be endorsed by the Ontario Mining Association implementation by its members.
  • 6.2 The health and safety system to share data both on emerging injury and illness trends, and information on incidents causing serious injury across the industry to trigger preventative actions by workplace parties.


  • footnote[17] Back to paragraph  Ham, Dr. James. (June 1976). Report of the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines.
  • footnote[18] Back to paragraph   Ham, Dr. James. (June 1976). Report of the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines. Pg. 152.
  • footnote[19] Back to paragraph  Quinlan, Michael. (2014). Ten Pathways to Death and Disaster: Learning from Fatal Incidents in Mines and Other High Hazard Workplaces. Sydney. The Federation Press.
  • footnote[20] Back to paragraph   Richard, Peter K., The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, 1997.