Mining safety - nice in theory?

By
Wednesday, 23 June, 2004

The recent compromise of worker safety at a uranium mine in the Northern Territory raises questions over whether attempts to streamline the approach to mine safety will continue to remain a dream of the industry rather than a practical reality.

The economic statistics of mining are impressive. As an industry sector, mining and petroleum make up almost ten per cent of the nation's GDP, with exports bringing in approximately $40 billion each year. The industry employs 66,000 people, with roughly 19,000 of those being employed in coalmines throughout NSW and QLD.

The economic benefit the industry provides to the nation is undeniable, yet the number of lives lost each year achieving those economic statistics is unconscionable. For 2002-03, there were 12 fatalities in the Australian minerals industry, five more than in 2001-02. In other words, one miner died every month from July 2002 to June 2003.

"The prominence of occupational, health and safety legislation around Australia has brought worker safety into the spotlight alongside the obvious economic benefits and the litigious society in which we live leaves no room for any employer to ignore the ever-increasing amount of OHS legislation."

The prominence of occupational, health and safety legislation around Australia has brought worker safety into the spotlight alongside the obvious economic benefits and the litigious society in which we live leaves no room for any employer to ignore the ever-increasing amount of OHS legislation.

The industry must be seen to be taking action in order to fill legislative requirements, which it seems to be doing quite readily, yet theory doesn't always seem to roll over into practice.

In March of this year, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA)'s uranium mine in Kakadu National Park was shut down after the process water system - which contains uranium and chemicals - was accidentally connected to the water supply for drinking and showering, resulting in 400 times the legal limit of uranium being found in the water.

The 28 workers who drank the contaminated water, complained of nausea, headaches and stomach cramps. Paul McDonald, a worker at the mine, was quoted by ABC News as saying he felt quite frightened about the incident. "I just thought the contamination would be a little bit too much salt, or chloride, or whatever - I was mortified when I found out it was uranium and a cocktail of acids.

"I was just very annoyed that nobody told me exactly how serious it was," McDonald said.

McDonald's reaction to the incident was tempered by Harry Kenyon-Slaney, the mine's chief executive, who was adamant the incident was a one-off.

Kenyon-Slaney was quoted in Melbourne's Herald-Sun as saying the mine would investigate into the cause of the incident.

"What I can say is the company will not shy away from tackling any management operational issues raised in the reports, whether this be a requirement for a thorough process integrity check or other comprehensive action."

The accident at the ERA uranium mine is not an isolated one, a range of injuries occur each month in the Australian mining sector. They are reported to authorities, investigated and eventually filed away.

Safety protocols require matters of health and safety to be reported to the state mining bodies like the NSW Department of Mineral Resources, who then evaluate the incident, provide a 'safety alert', which documents the incident, and make recommendations to improve the affected area, with the idea being to prevent similar accidents from occurring again.

"Worker safety is not up to one person or one company. In an industry that is as important to the Australian economic landscape as mining, safety is the job of many. Governments and mining organisations must design the policy and enforce it; individual mines and workers must heed the policy and promote it. Not out of fear of legal action but in a genuine attempt to create a safer workplace for their employees."

To make it easier for managers and workers alike to implement safety change, moves have been made by the many governing bodies in the mining sector to streamline its safety policies and make them accessible to the people who matter most. Federal and state governments, unions, mining councils, OHS bodies and mining corporations all have a vested interest in the mining industry. A consistent approach to safety regulation is being achieved slowly, one of the first changes being the implementation of the Council on Mineral and Petroleum Resources (MCMPR ).

The MCMPR was established by the Council of Australian Governments in 2001 to include the minerals and upstream component of the former Australian and New Zealand Minerals and Energy Council (ANZMEC). Its mission is to contribute to the national well-being by promoting the progressive and sustainable development of the Australian minerals and petroleum industries. A direct component of this sustainability is safety.

The MCMPR's chairman, the Federal Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Ian Macfarlane said "While industry must play its part in delivering mine safety to employees, the role of government in ensuring its delivery is crucial."

The MCMPR introduced the National Mine Safety Framework (NMSF) document in 2002. The nationally agreed framework deals with safety in mining operations and the health of mine workers.

However, attempts by the government to streamline safety protocol and legislation don't seem to provide solace to the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), which threatened strike action late last year in order to stop the apparent further erosion of safety standards in the coal industry. The campaign was in reaction to what the union claimed was the continuing deregulation of safety standards by the NSW and Queensland coal industries and the apparent lax attitude of their respective departments of mines in administering the existing provisions.

Tony Maher, general president of the CFMEU mining division said, "Mineworkers' lives and safety considerations are playing second fiddle to the employer demands for greater deregulation in the name of increased flexibility.

"If we don't act now, we will be counting the cost in lost lives and injuries and we are not prepared to wait to act until the coal mines are turned into industrial killing fields."

Attempts are also being made by WorkCover NSW and the CSIRO to develop new ideas and technology to help increase mine safety.

WorkCover NSW has established Industry Reference Groups (IRGs) that work to assist industry to improve their OHS, injury management and workers compensation performance by identifying priority industry-specific issues, trends and concerns, disseminating information to the whole industry sector - which is an important point as it provides information to both controlling bodies, managers and workers, and a consultation forum for WorkCover.

In other ventures, technology is being used as a practical solution to the safety problem in Australia's mines. The CSIRO is one of many organisations that are working to improve the technology used in mines, which should ultimately help in providing a safer workplace.

One example is a 'hi-tech canary' developed by the CSIRO, which is capable of predicting a mine collapse or the release of deadly gases into a mine. The canary can set alarm bells ringing at the first sign of danger.

"The technology, which operates remotely, will make mining safer and improve the way mines are designed in the future," says CSIRO research leader Mark Berry.

"The technique, called microseismic analysis, centres on the fine measurement of seismic waves generated in rock under stress from mining."

So far, this technique has been trialled at 15 underground coalmines in Queensland and New South Wales.

Geophones are devices with a wire coil inside a magnetic field. Seismic waves cause the coil to move in the field, generating a voltage. Arrays of geophones pick up the seismic waves.

Dr Xun Luo, a scientist at the CSIRO said, "At one site, an underground coal mine in central Queensland, engineers were concerned that mining would reactivate a fault through the coal seam, causing the mine's roof to collapse.

"We detected no significant seismicity in the fault zone. Daily reports of weak seismicity meant mining could proceed without interruptions that could have cost the company millions of dollars."

The canary is being developed alongside a video and radar system that warns drivers and pedestrians of each other, especially when huge vehicles are involved.

Patrick Glynn, a CSIRO researcher said, "Some of these mining vehicles are three storeys high and are like driving a small football field on wheels.

"Eliminating the blind spot on these huge mining vehicles is essential."

With at least two fatalities having occurred in open-cut mines in the last 10 years, the benefits of a system which uses a high-definition video camera mounted to the blind side of the vehicle and a video monitor in the cab are obvious.

"The system lets the driver know how many people or vehicles are behind them," Glynn said.

Looking at the statistics, it would not be outlandish to say that the current state of safety affairs in the mining industry appears to be exhibiting a discontinuance between well-meaning policy and workplace practice. It has been suggested by some in the industry that for as many safety policies that have been put forward over the long history of mining in this country, there have been just as many accidents.

Worker safety is not up to one person or one company. In an industry that is as important to the Australian economic landscape as mining, safety is the job of many. Governments and mining organisations must design the policy and enforce it; individual mines and workers must heed the policy and promote it. Not out of fear of legal action but in a genuine attempt to create a safer workplace for their employees.

The trialling of new safety technology in underground coalmines and the efforts to extend OHS information throughout the whole industry is evidence that safety is a top priority for everyone in the industry. With a concerted effort, an injury-free mining industry may become a reality and not just a long held pipe dream.

Carly Moore

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