'We put safety above production and profit. We have a moral obligation to see that the people we work with - our co-shareholders - go home in the same condition as they arrive.' Andrew Walker, training and safety manager at Tower Colliery, speaks with total assurance as he explains the underlying philosophy which won Europe's only worker-operated coal mine, a coveted employer's award in the 1996 National Training Awards.
The mine was closed by British Coal in April 1994 as uneconomic, but after a staunch fight by the local community, it was sold to the workers and re-opened nine months later in January 1995.
Even before the pit windlasses had begun to turn, the new managers had drawn up a training scheme to ensure safety. 'It was essential that everyone came back in the right frame of mind,' explains Walker. 'There was a real danger that as the new owners, miners would come back with a gung-ho attitude and take shortcuts to make sure their investment worked.' As a result managers devised a training programme based largely on the existing NVQ for mining operations, backed with money from mid-Glamorgan TEC and Cynon Valley Borough Council. This began with a two-day training course - the first spent in the classroom, the second on-site at the coal face, reminding possibly rusty miners of the equipment and the safety rules. 'We got them to pause and think before diving in and picking up their tools,' he says. After that they were closely supervised for another 13 weeks, with weekly assessments to monitor performance.
In all, Tower spent £70,000 on training in its first six months of co-operative ownership. If the miners - most of whom had sunk their entire redundancy payments from their former employers into the pit - were worried about pumping so much money into training, however, they needn't have been concerned.
The scheme paid for itself many times over within the first year. Not only has absenteeism dropped from 9% to 1%, but the pit's safety record has been transformed. According to Walker, under the old regime Tower would normally expect about 25 notifiable accidents (where a worker is unable to work for at least three days) each year, including at least one really serious incident such as a leg having to be amputated.
Since the training scheme started, however, the first - and only - accident took place 11 months into the year when a miner stumbled underground and broke two fingers. The pit's insurance company is so delighted with the improvement that it has cut annual premiums by £500,000. 'That's not bad for a company with an £18 million turnover,' smiles Walker.
The company continues its commitment to training - to the tune of some £50,000 annually: 'There are plenty of experienced men around and it would be very easy only to employ former miners, but we want to give something back to the community so we've taken on green labour,' Walker says. At present the pit has four modern craft apprentices and two trainee face workers. It continues to train the existing workforce, tailoring existing NVQ packages to the specific needs of the company.
The company has also demonstrated its commitment by becoming the first colliery to be approved as a BTEC NVQ examination centre. 'In the past Tower's management tended to react to problems - by which time it was too late and the mistakes could be expensive,' explains Walker. 'Instead we see ourselves managing training in the same way that we manage other aspects of the business.' Now Tower's management tries
to identify training needs in advance. 'We work in a very competitive market and have to make sure that we've got the knowledge, skills and abilities to meet our business objectives,' he says. 'I see NVQs as a vital management tool.'.