Australia’s risky coal business

Last year saw Queensland suffer one of its worst years for safety on record, with a spike in the number of injuries.

The state’s coal mining industry was particularly hazardous with the Queensland commissioner for mine safety, Stewart bell stating “we have seen a disturbing rise in dangerous behaviour in underground coal mines”.

With this in mind the industry has launched a new program in an effort to halt this worrying trend.

RISKGATE is the largest health and safety project ever funded by the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP).

The online information database has been specifically developed to capture and share knowledge across and between different coal mining companies about how to manage, treat, and control the risks associated with open cut and underground coal mining operations.

“The reason why RISKGATE was developed was that there was no coal industry body of knowledge available to assist individual mine sites in their aim of achieving best practice. RISKGATE is filling that knowledge void,” Centennial Coal spokesman and RISKGATE health and safety task group chair John Hempenstall said.

The first version of RISKGATE was officially released in December after “two years of solid work” project manager Philipp Kirsch told Australian Mining.

“The database we have developed is the most comprehensive in Australia. There has been input from Australia's six largest coal companies and I am confident it will lead to fewer incidents,” Kirsch said.

The program aims to better equip personnel to handle risk within the sector.

“Australian coal companies focus significant resources in managing risk. With RISKGATE, you will have the ability to bring the industry's current knowledge into the room when you do a risk assessment,” Tony Egan from Xstrata Coal said on behalf of ACARP.

Developing RISKGATE 

Although still in its early phases RISKGATE is already showing great promise for improving mine site safety.

“We’re about two thirds of the way through and that has taken two very solid years of work to do the first eleven topics. Next year we will do another six topics and we will start on a seventh topic,” Kirsch said.

“At the start of this project, the coal industry identified 12 key target areas. Through our work, the project has expanded to target at least 17 areas of major risk to the industry.”

Currently the program documents eleven high risk areas including tyres and rims, isolation, collisions, strata control, ground control, fires, explosives (underground), explosives (open cut), explosions, manual tasks, and slips, trips and falls.

Researchers are looking to expand the functionality with $1.3 million in funding supplied by ACARP, which takes ACARP’s total RISKGATE investment to $3.5 million.

Six more areas, including outbursts, inrush, coal bursts and bumps, interface controls and displays, hazardous chemicals and tailings dams, will also be investigated.

When the project is completed it is expected there will be between sixteen and twenty topics covered including collisions, chemicals, inrush and explosions.

To date it is estimated the companies involved, which include Anglo American and Centennial Coal, have contributed over four hundred days of individual expert time.

“The companies nominate people to be on the different topic panels and so far we’ve had over four hundred days of company time donated to the project, so that’s a massive investment on the part of the companies,” Kirsch said.

Using bowtie analysis each topic is comprehensively researched and analysed, breaking them down into different parts in order to figure out what the causes, consequences and controls of each risk would be, a process which has proven to be quite lengthy at times.

“To do a topic takes about eight days total and that’s just workshop time, not all the work we do behind the scenes which is way more than eight days.

“It’s essentially four two day workshops spread over six months,” he said.

Kirsch said the process of developing the web based application has been a very rewarding one involving extensive workshops where industry experts debate, discuss, and pool their on the job knowledge in order to make the operation of coal mines safer.

Coal collaboration 

The beauty of this project is that it has been developed, funded, and driven by the coal industry and there has been an abundance of information shared between all involved, Kirsch said.

“The system was something that the [coal] companies proposed at the very beginning as something they wanted to do,” he said.

“The companies have an approach that there really is no competitive advantage and that there are no secrets around safety. It’s not like sharing how much you paid for a truck or how much you sell a tonne of coal for, which would be more guarded information.

“But sharing how you prevent a risk from happening is something that the companies think should be shared openly, so there really has been no resistance from the companies in sharing that information. They talk very openly, learn from each other in the workshops and contribute the knowledge which we then capture and put together on the website,” Kirsch said.

Hempenstall said that Australia’s coal industry stands out from any other because of the way health and safety information is shared amongst competitors without restraint.

“The Australian coal industry is different compared to overseas countries in the way we freely exchange health and safety information and experiences,” he said.

The real benefit of creating RISKGATE that project organisers didn’t realise in the beginning but certainly discovered early on in the process was that the individual company experts benefited considerably from interaction with their peers from other companies.

“They don’t get that opportunity very much, so in the workshop process there was the ability to talk with each other about how they deal with these different risks and there was on the spot learning; I think that was very energising for the participants,” Kirsch said.

Implementation 

The information captured in RISKGATE is designed to assist companies with what they already do to manage risk both on and off site.

“Companies already do comprehensive risk assessments; they do things like audit the systems and processes they have in place; they do incident investigations and then they of course do a lot of training,” Kirsch said.

The way RISKGATE has been formulated is very practical, for example if a manager was to do a risk assessment about a particular question they can easily access a checklist the researchers have developed for that particular question.

“Whether it’s a collision or some kind of an electrical fault or a tyre exploding, they could go to the online resource, find what they want, print it out,” Kirsch explains.

Kirsch emphasised that through capturing this vital industry knowledge you bring the whole industry into the room when an individual wants to manage their site risks.

“So it’s like having that whole group thinking, or the whole set of Australian coal companies with you in the room when you tackle the risk that you’re trying to manage and that’s what makes this system quite unique and quite innovative.”

Hempenstall agrees that RISKGATE overcomes the current limitations of conducting risk assessments with just the personnel available within the company on site at a given time.

“The RISKGATE body of knowledge extends the information available beyond the mine site and company to a directory developed by the coal industry for the coal industry,” he said.

Keeping RISKGATE relevant 

With such a huge body of information contained in RISKGATE and with new technologies and best practices being developed for the coal industry the world over, one of the biggest challenges for a web based application like RISKGATE is going to be staying relevant and up-to-date.

In order for this to occur Kirsch said the organisation is going to rely on user feedback and engagement.

“In terms of keeping the materials current, we do have an email icon in the system which allows the user to make a comment or revision which comes back to us,” he said.

Kirsch added that in the future, if industry support is still strong, they would consider running specifically targeted workshops once a year “depending on how rapidly things are changing to just update and revise the information that is in the system”.

“We do recognise that we have to do the maintenance around the knowledge,” he said.

Further expansions are scheduled for completion in June 2015; however Hempenstall acknowledges the project will never be ‘finished’ per se.

“If your knowledge stands still then you are going backwards and MISHC is already planning a maintenance and update regime for RISKGATE beyond 2015. The aim is for it to always be a current body of knowledge,” Hempenstall said.

Strong industry support in uncertain times 

It is no secret Australia’s coal industry has had a rough year; battling increasing operation and labour costs, strong international competition and a high Aussie dollar.

Nikki Williams, CEO of the Australian Coal Association, recently told SBS that the Australian coal sector is at "a terrible junction where not only has the international market come off in terms of prices, but our costs and productivity have gone to a terrible place".

It was only five years ago that Australia was considered one of the most economical places to produce coal in the world: now we’re the highest cost producer at $176 a tonne.

The rest of the world is sitting at around $106 a tonne.

At times like this it is easy for extra curricula activities like RISKGATE to get put on the back burner.

“As the industry has tightened its budgets it may be more difficult to get industry to attend the workshops because of internal funding constraints, we’ll find out what happens next year,” Kirsch said.

However, Hempenstall is confident the RISKGATE program is an essential component for the progression of Australia’s coal industry and the continued development of best practices onsite.

“What I am now starting to see is a recognition by the coal industry of the paradigm shift that we have to undertake in order to achieve the next step in safety improvement.

“I think RISKGATE is providing the catalyst for the industry to make that leap forward,” he said.