Issues Magazine

Managing a Risky Business

By David Cliff

Australian mining has a great international safety reputation, but the nature of risk compels the industry to remain vigilant.

Although many see mining as a dangerous industry, mining in Australia is the safest in the world. Certainly, fatality and injury rates are higher than in some other industries.

The size of the equipment used and the complexity of mining processes are two major safety factors. The challenge is how to manage these hazards and others to safely mine the minerals that we all need.

Some Mining Hazards
Consider a typical haul truck weighing over 400 tonnes empty and over 800 tonnes fully laden. It can travel at speeds up to 80 km/h and be the size of a two-storey house.

Now put yourself in the driver’s cab – what can you see? The view from the cab is very limited.

Figure 1. Blind zones around a typical haul truck. Grey areas indicate where operator cannot see a 1.83 metre tall person. Image credit: NIOSH Mining

Figure 1 illustrates the blind spots that exist, not just due to barriers to circumferential views but also vertically – it can be hard to see people and small vehicles within 10 metres of the cab. This can lead to accidents where the large truck drives over small trucks and vehicles because they get too close (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Blind zones can lead to accidents. Credit: NIOSH Mining

The decay process that produces coal liberates gases as the chemistry of coalification proceeds. These gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, can get trapped in the pores of the coal and be released when the coal is mined. This is particularly a problem for deeper coal mines where the potential for the gases to diffuse away is greatly reduced. Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant and methane is explosive in the wrong concentrations.

In November 2010 at the Pike River Mine on New Zealand’s south island, 29 men lost their lives when a flammable atmosphere of methane was ignited and exploded. A methane flame could be seen burning at the top of what had been the ventilation shaft of the mine. The fourth explosion, some nine days after the first, lifted the heavy metal fan shaft top and deposited it some 10 metres away.

Responsibility for Safety
In Australia, the primary responsibility for the provision of a safe workplace resides with the operator of the mine site. The way to improve safety performance is to get the involvement of all at the workplace and manage safety rather than just comply with rules (i.e. make people think about their safety and take responsibility). The responsibility is obviously shared between workers, with those who have the most control and influence having a greater responsibility. In safety terms this means encouraging a positive safety culture. As well as compliance, cooperation and a sense of responsibility at all levels, the culture must integrate consistency and continuous improvement.

There is no central federal mining occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation in Australia – each state gazettes its own legislation. Mining OHS legislation in Australia is generally considered to be the most progressive in the world. The legislation is based upon duty of care, risk management principles and workforce representation.

The legislation generally focuses on regulations that encourage the development of management processes. Some traditional prescriptive or rule-based regulations still exist in areas where the stakeholders (government, employers and workers) are not comfortable to remove compliance requirements. Government inspectors act both as enforcers of the regulations and as mentors that encourage good health and safety performance. Enforcement protocols are risk-based, the action being defined by the level of risk and the immediacy of the risk.

Recently there have been attempts to introduce consistent or harmonised OHS legislation Australia-wide. Some states, such as Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania, have introduced legislation for mainstream OHS that is consistent with the model legislation but others, such as Western Australia and Victoria, have not. Separate harmonised mine safety legislation is still being debated.

The key to the implementation of modern OHS legislation is the requirement to reduce the risk to workers to as low as reasonably possible. The legislation does not specify what acceptable is; rather, it puts the onus on the mine operator to establish this.

The risk assessment process involves consulting with an appropriate cross-section of the workforce and external expertise to identify and characterise the potential hazards at a mine site.

Risk management is an ongoing process of:

• identification of potential hazards;

• assessment of the level of risk;

• identification of controls necessary to reduce risk to an acceptable level;

• implementation of controls;

• monitoring effectiveness of controls; and

• monitoring levels of residual risk.

Monitoring the effectiveness of the implementation of the legislation and OHS management systems occurs in many ways.

Legislation requires the reporting of all accidents and significant incidents, injuries and serious illnesses. These can be trended and analysed to identify underlying causes. Significant incidents not only indicate the potential for an injury or fatality but also the potential for hazardous circumstances to exist, such as accumulations of flammable gas, unstable strata, inadequate ventilation and high dust levels.

Legislation also requires that mine sites carry regular audit and review processes, which are subject to scrutiny by the regulator. The regulator makes spot checks and high-level audits of the Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems as well.

An integral part of the modern mining OHS legislation is the inherent role that the workforce plays in implementing OHS management. At the highest level in most states the responsible minister is advised by a tripartite advisory council (government, employer and employee). These boards have the power to define training competencies and provide advice to the minister on reforms to the legislation. Each mine site has an OHS committee with workforce representation that have input into the development of safety procedures and plans. There are generally site safety and health representatives, who are elected by the workforce.

Remaining Issues
Thanks to risk management, OHS management systems, duty of care and workforce involvement, mining in Australia is the safest in the world. However, reducing the fatalities and injuries that do occur is becoming more and more challenging now that easier improvements have been made. Safety is an ongoing issue requiring vigilance and assiduous application. Given the inherent risks mentioned, any loss of commitment can be catastrophic.

Remaining issues relate to the complexity of the mining process, so fixing one problem at a time will not bring real improvement. Accidents often occur not because of a simple single failure of a piece of equipment or system, but due to the unexpected interaction of multiple systems. These events are much harder to predict and thus harder to prevent. Economies of scale can also mean larger and more dangerous situations. High levels of automation remove the human capacity to detect the unusual and make corrections before incidents become accidents.

The mining safety mindset must be brought forward and up the safety culture hierarchy. People at all levels within the mining industry need to be considering safety right from the initial planning and feasibility of a mining operation so that it is built in and not bolted on.