Mine fires still a burning issue

Despite a focus on the issue in recent years, the number of mobile plant-related fires on mine sites remains unacceptably high, according to the New South Wales Resources Regulator. FM Global group manager, account engineering Michael Beaumont explains how to reduce this risk.

The New South Wales Resources Regulator expects the number of fires occurring on mobile plants to continue to elevate if no further action is taken.

Together with FM Global, the regulator takes the position that all fires on mobile plants are avoidable and preventable, and notes that it has taken a zero-tolerance approach where mine operators have not taken appropriate steps to manage this risk.

“Fires on mobile (plants) are inherently dangerous. They impact on the safety of workers and have potentially catastrophic consequences,” the regulator states.

This warning follows an earlier report released by the regulator in 2019 that showed mobile plant fires in the state had risen throughout the previous decade. More than 200 fires were reported between September 2014 and May 2017. That’s about six per month and double the incidents that occurred between 2001 and 2008.

This isn’t an issue that is confined to New South Wales. As an insurer of over 300 mining sites worldwide, including 50 in Australia, FM Global’s loss history shows that there is a bigger trend.

FM Global’s data shows that fire on mobile plants have remained high yet relatively stable worldwide. Over the past five years, fire has accounted for 27 per cent of all losses on mine sites. The most significant rise in fire incidents is in relation to fixed plant rubber belt conveyors, vibratory screens, hydrocyclones, piping and rubber lined equipment. These incidents have increased in both frequency and severity.

Beaumont shares the below recommendations based on FM Global’s experience in supporting its policyholders to reduce the risk of fire breaking out on mine sites:

  • Inadequate levels of fire protection, or fire protection equipment that isn’t installed properly are two other issues that frequently contribute to fire losses on mine sites. Ensure fire protection equipment is regularly checked and that it is properly installed. Make sure staff are well trained in using the equipment.
  • Hot work and hot surfaces have caused over 50 per cent of fire losses. Ensure a proper hazard analysis is conducted prior to doing any hot work, including flanging off pipes so fires in one vessel will not spread so easily.
  • Look at the layout and concentration of flammable materials onsite. Often, it’s clear that if combustible equipment was laid out slightly differently, the risk of fire spreading would be significantly reduced.
  • Prioritise equipment maintenance. Even minor equipment failures, like seized up bearings, can significantly increase the chance of a fire breaking out. Besides regular inspections, predictive analytic technology can help identify potential failures before they occur. Discuss with risk management partners which technologies might work for equipment.
  • Bring employees up to speed. When new equipment and materials are introduced at the mine site, ensure staff are made aware of any new risks that introducing those materials will open up – including their role in managing those risks. As an example, plastic equipment has undoubtedly contributed to an increase of fires on mine sites. The material itself is not the primary issue. The challenge is that awareness around its combustibility and how to manage it have not increased at a rate that matches its uptake throughout the industry.

FM Global has updated its standards for protecting plastic equipment. Its top recommendations are:

  • Ensuring water-based fire protection systems are considered for all equipment that has a large component of rubber or plastic construction such as critical conveyors, screen decks, filter presses, spirals, hydrocyclones or equipment using high pressured hydraulic oil.
  • Consider any flammable liquid that is used in your process. Is additional fire protection needed? Can spill or leak size be controlled? Are additional interlocks required?
  • Ensure that protection systems on heavy duty mobile equipment have appropriate levels of automation and cover all areas where a fire could occur (including areas where there is lubrication oil).

As the New South Wales Resources Regulator warns, without a refreshed approach to fire prevention on mine sites, Australia can expect to see a continued and unacceptably high rate of fire incidents – and a high level of scrutiny from regulators.

The good news is that taking relatively small steps can significantly reduce the likelihood of fire-related damage and loss on Australia’s mine sites. Afterall, resilience is a choice.

This feature also appears in the December edition of Australian Mining.

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