The Database of Demining Accidents: A Driving Force in HMA

by Andy Smith [ Humanitarian Mine Action Specialist ] - view pdf

This article evaluates the need for a centralized accident-report database within the field of humanitarian mine action. The author argues that the failure to report accidents by on-site personnel can inadvertently lead to otherwise avoidable accidents where similar events occur. The author highlights the benefits that the database has provided for the community and makes several recommendations on how to further reduce severe injury within the industry.

During a rest break in Mozambique photographs are used to explain how devices function.
During a rest break in Mozambique photographs are used to explain how devices function.
All photos courtesy of the author.

The Database of Demining Accidents (DDAS) was started in 1998 using public data gathered for the United States Army Communications-Electronics Command, Night Vision & Electronic Sensors Directorate. The database is an easy-to-use system containing the original demining accident reports with corresponding summaries.


DDAS Influence on Humanitarian Mine Action

Having a collection of field reports about demining accidents and the context surrounding them has influenced the evolution of the International Mine Action Standards. Basing IMAS content on empirical evidence rather than received wisdom has enhanced United Nations Mine Action Service’s field authority and contributed to its success.

During the drafting of IMAS 2001, the DDAS proved invaluable in settling disputes about basic demining safety considerations. In the absence of other data, the previous U.N. standards (1997) had been dominated by caution and were not well received in the field. With the database as evidence, the following was established:

The Database of Demining Accidents contains the original demining accident reports overlaid with a summary and easy-search facility. Always available on request, the database records were put online at http://ddasonline.com in 2006. This site receives an average of 400 discrete visits a day, with the most popular topic being “Deminer training” At the time, received wisdom was that deminers lie down to excavate, should wear personal protective equipment with ballistic helmets and back-panels, and that the most common demining accident was stepping on a mine. Deminers’ protective visors had to be 13-millimeters thick, and casualty evacuation by helicopter was required at all sites.

With the database as evidence, it was possible to show the following:

Analysis of the DDAS can highlight failings in equipment or training.
Figure 1. Analysis of the DDAS can highlight failings in equipment or training. Between 2005-10 58 percent of missing mine accidents were missed while using a metal-detector.

Not all of these findings were universally accepted, but the evidence meant that they could not be ignored and a process of compromise within the IMAS Board membership could begin with the aim of achieving a pragmatic and practical consensus.


Post-2001 IMAS Updates

The Database has provided evidence in support of several updates to the 2001 IMAS. These updates were all related to field safety in one way or another. Below are several of the updates:

 

Blast resistant long-handled tools have been proven to reduce the risk of severe hand injury.
Figure 2. Blast resistant long-handled tools have been proven to reduce the risk of severe hand injury.

Research

The authority of the database as an objective record has been widely accepted. Evidence from the database is frequently cited in academic papers (Post-Conflict Reconstruction Master of Arts at York, U.K., and doctorate research at University of Genova, Italy, for example). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology runs doctorate research requiring students to study accidents from the database,3 and other universities have asked for permission to link to the DDAS site. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a government research institute in South Africa, has based several projects on the results of studying the DDAS. Between 2001 and 2010, technical inquiries to Noel Mulliner at UNMAS were frequently answered with reference to DDAS accident records.

The database cannot be used to prove much statistically, because it does not include all accident records and relies on the honesty and sometimes questionable objectivity of the original accident investigators. However, the database allows qualitative assessments backed by quantitative analysis, together providing compelling evidence of general conclusions that outweigh any individual’s personal opinion. For an explanation of the quantitative and qualitative data analysis, see http://ddasonline.com/observeinferDDAS.htm.

 

Analysis of the DDAS can highlight failings in equipment or training.
The folding Minelab detector, an ergonomic success.

Lessons Learned

In 2008, the author’s DDAS analysis showed the following:

Some of these conclusions were difficult for IMAS Board Members or field practitioners to accept, but unexpectedly, more accident data was informally supplied than at any time before.

 

Figure 3. A two-handled excavator designed at MIT to replace the pick-axe. The author believes that if the Afghans alone were to adopt this tool, it would save at least a dozen hands a year.
Figure 3. A two-handled excavator designed at MIT to replace the pick-axe. The author believes that if the Afghans alone were to adopt this tool, it would save at least a dozen hands a year.

Data Gathering and Security

Responsible field staff provide accident records because they understand that sharing this information might prevent the unnecessary repetition of avoidable accidents. UNMAS has supplied a few accident records, but no one has conducted a comprehensive data-gathering exercise, thus leaving the DDAS as the only record of accidents in the industry. The value of a good accident archive is recognized in all hazardous professions except, it seems, mine action.

The current number of recorded victims in the DDAS is close to 1,000. This includes all the records for some countries in some periods, which has allowed an assessment of the data-spread to conclude that the records are broadly representative of all injurious humanitarian-demining accidents.

Despite the current IMAS requirement for demining groups to share accident data, many do not. Accident secrecy has been a constant problem, arising sometimes out of loyalty to colleagues and sometimes because the investigators want to protect the victim’s insurance payout. It is hard to criticize demining groups when the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Office of Project Services and UNMAS are also reluctant to share any possibly embarrassing data. Because the names of the victims, investigators or demining groups are not published, however, there is no real reason to fear sharing accident details and the lessons that can be learned from them.

The database has been in the public domain for 12 years, and the media or competing demining organizations have not abused it, implying that the removal of names and identifiers before publication has been successful in preventing abuse.

 

Future Uses

The weight of evidence within the database changes as new records are added. Currently, database evidence could be used to improve the safety of deminers in several ways:

 

Summary and Recommendations

The DDAS has been of proven value to the humanitarian mine-action industry. It has been “a driving force” in promoting practical change and the sharing of experience, in creating and updating the IMAS and in the field. Ananonymous database, it protects the privacy of those involved in accidents while allowing others to learn from their experience.

As an industry, international mine action has not matured to the point where it is open and transparent about its accidents. Some individuals and groups at all levels withhold or conceal information that could prevent future accidents. When organizations do not disclose accident data, the managers run the risk of appearing criminally negligent by ignoring their responsibility for the safety and occupational health of their staff.

Deminers are the agents of those who fund humanitarian mine action. They work to priorities that the donors have imposed, yet their treatment after an accident usually lacks any sign of the humanitarian concern that lay behind their employment. It is remarkable that a “humanitarian” industry has made no real effort to make long-term provision for them—despite interest shown in international forums by expatriate field practitioners who are concerned for their colleagues regardless of their nationality.

It is time for a U.N. agency to take the DDAS under its management, enforce the IMAS requirement for the sharing of accident records, and maintain the principles of anonymity and of keeping original accident reports on which the DDAS was founded. This would be a requirement in any responsibly controlled industry and is a glaring omission in humanitarian mine action. A U.N. agency should accept responsibility for gathering accident records, creating an archive and conducting informed analysis of that archive.

Earlier this year UNMAS asked the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining to gather accident data in a new system extending the “tick-box” accident records recorded in the Information Management System for Mine Action. Unfortunately, this would effectively mean creating a new database (instead of updating the existing DDAS), and would require ignoring the detailed reports that provide the core of the DDAS. Without the original accident report to which to refer, analysis will rely on a brief summary made by an office-based staff member. This initiative may succeed, but the result will be “shallow” because it will depend entirely on the many levels of interpretation between the accident event and the “tick” placed in an available box on a form.

In the meantime, the database is currently being updated. Demining accident records, questions and comments should be sent to the author at avs@nolandmines.com. J

The originator and keeper of the Database of Demining Accidents, which is online at http://ddasonline.com, wrote this paper.

 

Biography

Andy SmithThe longest serving member of the IMAS board, Andy Smith has worked in humanitarian mine action since 1995. Demining jobs have included mine clearance, surveying, nongovernmental organization management and United Nations Development Programme country programme management. Not-for-profit research and development work has included developing safety equipment for use in HMA. Examples include the most commonly used blast visor and blast-resistant hand tools. Consultancy work has included working for the U.S. government, U.N. agencies, NGOs, universities, private companies and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.

Andrew Vian Smith
AVS Mine Action Consultants
14 Old Dixton Road
Monmouth / U.K.
Tel: 0044 (0) 1600 719993
E-mail: avs(at)nolandmines.com
Website: http://nolandmines.com; http://www.ddasonline.com

Endnotes

  1. IMAS 08.20 Land Release. IMAS. http://www.mineactionstandards.org/fileadmin/user_upload/
    MAS/documents/imas-international-standards/english/series-08/IMAS-08-20-land-release-Ed1-Am1.pdf
    . Accessed 22 April 2011.
  2. Technical Note 10.20-02/09 Field Risk Assessment (FRA).IMAS. http://www.mineactionstandards.org/fileadmin/
    user_upload/MAS/documents/technical-notes/TNMA-10-20-20-09-Field-Risk-Assessment-Version-1-0.pdf
    . Accessed 22 April 2011.
  3. MIT Design for Demining Spring 2007. http://web.mit.edu/demining/. Accessed 28 Feb 2011.
  4. Evidence of this recurs within the database records when basic rules of minefield safety are not applied despite the presence of an expatriate on site. For example, in accident DDAS468 no interior mined-area marking was used to delineate the division between cleared and uncleared areas in a dense minefield: A deminer was killed when inadvertently entering the uncleared area, stepping on one mine and falling onto another. A frequent example is the inclusion in accident reports of photographs showing expatriate supervisors inside the mined area while work is being conducted who are not wearing the required PPE. There are also several examples of recent expatriate fatalities in which PPE was not used and the group's SOPs were being broken
  5. DDAS Accident Report. DDAS Online. http://www.ddasonline.com/PDF_files/DDASaccident468.pdf.  Accessed 18 May 2011.
  6. The definition of cheap PPE is a cost of less than US$500 dollars for body protection and less than $100 dollars for full-face visors.
  7. Technical Note 10.10/02 Safety Notes – General. IMAS. http://www.mineactionstandards.org/fileadmin/user_upload/MAS/documents/technical-notes/TN_10-10_02_2004_General_Safety.pdf. Accessed 22 April 2011.

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