Pike River survivor keeps safety at the centre of mining

Daniel Rockhouse

The Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety Conference explores a range of best practice techniques and ideas to enhance safety in the mining sector.

Held at The Star Gold Coast, the three-day conference featured panel discussions and keynote speeches from several speakers, including Queensland’s first female mine safety and health commissioner Kate du Preez, and Australian Workers’ Union executive officer Mark Raguse.

More than 30 presentations were also held, with topics including respiratory diseases in mining by US black lung expert Dr Robert Cohen, the security of explosives by chief inspector of operations at the department of natural resources and mines Noel Erichsen, and the use of drugs in the workplace by Lisa Took and Adam Michael from Drug Detection Systems.

One of the keynote speakers was forensic engineer Sean Brady, who discussed the human factors involved in engineering failures.

Brady – who investigates structural failures – said most people believed engineering failures were technical failures. However, they neglect to take the human factors that are involved into account, he added.

“When you dig into all the history of all the structural engineering failures you find that for every technical cause of failure, there are a whole set of human causes that sit around it,” he told Australian Mining.

Human causes are the real problem because they are difficult to catch, according to Brady. He also mentioned engineers with big egos and who don’t check their work as another issue.

“You get these bizarre situations where you hire the best engineer in the world to design something and it falls down. And why? Because the person got too egotistical,” he said.

“And why didn’t the other people check the work? Because in their view, the best engineer in the world designed this structure, so how on earth could it fall down?”

He said companies could become complacent because of their certainty an engineer was ‘the best’.

“One of the really interesting human factors is the better the people you put on the job doesn’t make it necessarily safer a job because people get into complacency with all of that expertise there,” he said.

One particular area Brady discussed was the notion of ‘expertise bias’, a key human factor that can contribute to engineering failures. He said most people believed the more expertise you can accrue in a particular area, the more of an expert you would become and the less chance you had of making a mistake. And while that may be true, he said there were disadvantages to that way of thinking.

“Psychologists have found there’s a down side to it. “When we start off developing our expertise, it’s very flexible. We’re learning something new, and when we get it wrong, we learn why we got it wrong and we adjust our expertise to fix that,” Brady said.

“But as we move on through our careers, that flexibility starts to disappear and our expertise starts to become incredibly stable. And when it becomes incredibly stable a funny thing happens – we stop questioning it. We just accept in our own mind that this is how the world works.”

He linked this to the concept of implicit assumptions, and how potentially dangerous this could be when undertaking engineering tasks.

“We make certain assumptions about how the world works but because we make them essentially subconsciously. We don’t think about them; they are implicit,” he said.

“The problem is once they are implicit you don’t actually check whether they are correct or not.”

Brady added those who have significant levels of stable expertise have this capability underpinned by a range of assumptions about how they believe the world works; a lot of assumptions that are implicit. But when they apply their expertise and assumptions in a slightly different area, they don’t question whether it is relevant to the new application.

Solving the issue

Brady said one of ways to solve the problems that could arise from making implicit assumptions was to make them explicit.

“Once it’s an explicit assumption, people can actually evaluate whether it’s reasonable for the current application.”

He said one of the biggest things that made a big difference was implementing multidisciplinary teams.

“We’re all about specialisation. We build teams of structural engineers and mechanical engineers etcetera, and we build them separately,” he said.

“One of the problems is when you put a group of structural engineers in a room, they bring the same expertise and the same implicit assumptions to the table.”

“So now you’ve got a team together and everyone is bringing the same implicit assumptions so there’s no opportunity for those implicit assumptions to be questioned.”

Brady suggested companies should, for example, place a mechanical engineer in the room as well to add another perspective that could bring out certain implicit assumptions and make them explicit.

“That mechanical engineer will have different expertise. The fundamentals will be quite similar but they’ll have a different form of expertise and will thereby bring a different set of assumptions,” he explained.

“And it’s when those structural engineers are sitting on the table and are talking about things that the mechanical engineer can say, we’ve never talked about this issue, is there a reason why we haven’t talked about this?

“Their role is to essentially bring out those implicit assumptions and make them explicit.”

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Rising above after tragedy

Another keynote speaker was Daniel Rockhouse, one of only two survivors of the Pike River mine disaster that devastated New Zealand in 2010. An underground methane gas fuelled explosion occurred at the mine, located north east of Greymouth on the country’s South Island, and killed 29 workers.

Their bodies remain in the mine after several assessments deemed the site unsafe for re-entry.

With this year’s theme of ‘Sharing My Story’, Rockhouse shared his personal experience at the Pike River operations and what he learned from it.

Rockhouse said better gas monitoring should have been implemented at Pike River and could have helped prevent the disaster.

“More adequate ventilation and gas monitoring [should have been used] in the mine – standard procedures and tools that are available in any mine here in Australia,” he told Australian Mining.

“None of this was available at Pike.”

Rockhouse believes management should have also prioritised the safety of the workers rather than the production of coal.

Through his presentation, Rockhouse urged attendees to learn from the mistakes that were made in the lead up to and on the day of the explosion. He said he didn’t want Pike River to be “another statistic in mining disasters”.

“I chose to take part in this conference to support a change in the industry,” he said.

“And if me speaking at the conference opens the eyes of even one person and makes them ensure that safety is not put on the back burner then it makes it worth it.”

Rockhouse has remained in contact with fellow survivor Russell Smith since the tragedy.

“I saw him last November on the anniversary of Pike, he was taking part in the annual remembrance ride for Pike and I had a good catch up with him. He’s no longer working in the mining industry and remains on the West Coast of New Zealand,” he said.

A final piece of advice

While management may have the primary responsibility of ensuring worker safety, Rockhouse said employees should take the initiative and speak up if they noticed something is wrong.

“Take a stand. If you are feeling unsafe speak to your deputies and managers. Make them aware of your concerns and make sure they listen. Don’t be shy about doing this as it may save your life,” he said.

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