By EPCM World contributor Xavier Macia
Underground mining has long had a reputation for being a dangerous and hazardous industry to work in. Most mining accidents involve small numbers of individuals and usually go unnoticed by the general public, much like workplace accidents in the construction industry. In first world countries major accidents involving numbers of workers are rare, and when they do occur, are major news events that give the mining industry as a whole its dangerous reputation.
In 2010 three mining accidents attracted worldwide attention; in April a methane gas explosion in a West Virginia coal mine killed 29 miners and in November an explosion in a New Zealand coal mine killed 29 as well. In mid-2010, another incident involved the successful rescue of 33 Chilean miners after the workers had been trapped underground for two months. Regardless of a happy outcome, the Chilean rescue required enormous financial and technical efforts, and of course took a psychological and physical toll on the rescued miners and their families.
Other incidents in Chile the same year helped mark 2010 the deadliest year in a decade for Chilean miners; 45 died in accidents that made little impact on the international media. The West Virginia blast was the worst mining disaster in the United States in a quarter century. The New Zealand accident was that nation’s worst in more than 40 years.
While the numbers for mining deaths are dismal in first world nations, they are truly appalling in the developing world. In 2010 there were no “major” mining incidents reported in China – yet that year 2,433 Chinese miners were killed on the job, according to the United States Mine Rescue Association. This number was down from almost 7,000 deaths in 2002. Most of these deaths are associated with the underground mining of coal.
Fortunately, Canada has not had a major mining incident for several years but this month marks the 20th anniversary of the1992 Westray mine disaster in Nova Scotia that killed 26 men. In fact, miners in Canada work in one of the nation’s safest industries, especially when compared to construction workers, factory workers, fishermen or farmers. Construction and factory workers are more than twice as likely to be injured on the job than a mining professional.
In Canada mining is highly regulated by government regulations and mining companies work hard to keep their workers safe. The industry as a whole continues to try and improve its record. But what can the industry do to become even safer? Can major mining accidents be eliminated?
EPCM World turns to Mr. David Forrester, an expert on underground mining safety, to answer these questions. Mr. Forrester is Senior Mining Engineer with AECOM in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
EPCM World: What is the most important factor in the operation of a safe underground mine? Is it leadership, technology, risk assessment, employee training and knowledge, or a combination of all these factors?
David Forrester: Running a safe underground mine requires development of a safety culture which in turn depends upon all of the above aspects. A crucial feature must be safety leadership beginning at the top of the organization and disseminating down through the whole team to each and every workplace. This is typically manifested in a comprehensive approach to hazard recognition and risk management permeating every aspect of health and safety and beyond to environmental protection, loss control and community liaison. Integral to implementation of such risk assessment is developing a comprehensive safety program to foster awareness, develop skills, fight complacency and incorporate effective communication to ensure all personnel have the necessary knowledge, skills and training. The safety process will encompass mitigation of hazards unique to each operation especially those associated with the underground mine-specific ore body, mining method(s) and conditions.
EPCM World: How does a mine manager or project leader ensure the safety of their employees while on site?
DF: Gaining a clear understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities is essential to a safe underground mine. In turn, safe operations depend on knowledge and skills expressed in terms of competence demonstrated through comprehensive, up-to-date training and the corresponding records. Most large mining companies today apply their own risk assessment/ management systems which often include pocket-sized cards summarizing key processes and tasks.
EPCM World: Have there been any developments in recent years that have significantly improved mine safety? Technological, legislative or administrative change?
DF: Major developments in mine safety over recent years have included two key focal areas: the creation and refinement of risk assessment/management systems and the exploitation of recent technological advances such as remote operation, personnel and vehicle tracking devices, and vehicle proximity detection of personnel.
EPCM World: What role does technology play in improving mining safety? Is common sense or is a best practices approach more important than technology in maintaining a safe mine? How important is the delegation of responsibilities in determining how safe a particular mine is?
DF: Continuous improvement of underground mine safety relies on a combination of best practices, the best of technology, common sense and continually looking out for fellow workers and ourselves. Many occupational health & safety regulations make safety every person’s duty so having clearly defined roles and responsibilities to build on is critical.
EPCM World: In the developing economies like China, Chile and India, mining safety lags behind. Are these countries improving their safety record as their economies grow or are they neglecting safety in the rush to industrialise?
DF: Pursuing underground mining safety improvements in developing economies requires the same focus and attention as in developed ones but often encompasses a group of different challenges related to cultural and administrative differences. So, while much can be done to acquire and use the latest technology (for example, eyeball retina recognition immediately before and after going underground, and communication systems to track personnel location underground) the human and cultural element often poses different challenges related to aspects such as empowerment of supervisors and workforces and regulatory compliance and enforcement.
Often management must develop mine-specific solutions to these challenges including adoption of basic essentials in internationally accepted codes of practice, company policies and procedures; and the development of safety culture including greater openness to recognition, sharing and rectifying hazards in the workplace every day as well as matching technology to local conditions.
EPCM World: With the increasing use of robotic equipment in hard rock mining, and the reduction of underground work forces, is safety likely to change as an issue?
DF: No – in two senses: there will always be human presence around automation and robotic applications (for emergency response), and in a broader sense, safety is part of a broader loss control system requiring risk management – not only of health and safety but also of environment and property and community.
EPCM World: How do mining companies approach the economic aspects of mine safety?
DF: Essentially, a profitable mine is a safe mine. Operations cannot easily bear the burden and cost of disasters, and subsequent recovery. Also replacement of key personnel, even for a few weeks, is an enormous challenge in the context of world shortage of underground mining expertise.