Australian coal has made a firm NO stance on the use of refuge chambers in coal mines. It's a stance that puts them at odds with all the other major coal producing nations, in particular the US and China.
There is no question that given the risk of further incidents and exposure to methane and coal dust, the best solution in the event of any underground emergency in a coal mine is to exit the mine immediately. Where Australian coal differs with the rest of the world, is the issue of what happens if miners simply can't get out of the mine.
With miner's lives at stake, you'd expect an amount of care and consideration with this question. It's certainly a valid question as there have been numerous past incidents in coal mining where miners have survived the initial explosion, fire or collapse and been left trapped and/or incapacitated.
And no-one, not even Australian coal is surely suggesting that in the case of every single coal mining incident, all miners underground at the time, wherever they are, are automatically dead? Or are they?
So, if we return to this question, you'd expect a responsible person to demonstrate an informed solution to the problem, likely backed by research, actual case studies and a clear understanding of the risks involved.
At least that's what happened in the US.
After the Sago coal mine explosion in 2006, where 13 miners became trapped and sadly later perished, intensive research by the US regulatory authorities MSHA and NIOSH determined that refuge chambers were "vital" to ensure that those unable to escape as a result of blocked escape ways, smoke or injuries, had another means of a safe environment and a second chance at survival.
In a detailed study involving all major mining incidents in the US between 1970 and 2006, NIOSH determined that "refuge stations (chambers) would have had a positive impact on the outcomes of 12 disasters or 32 per cent. The total number of miners that would have been positively impacted was 83 (19 per cent) of the 429 underground and impacted (miners) by these accidents. A total of 74 (29 per cent) of the 252 fatalities would have been positively impacted and potentially would have survived the accident".
74 lives: that's 74 families.
The report goes on to state that these numbers are based on the assumptions that were made during the analysis of the mine disaster reports, and that "these assumptions are conservative and based on sound understanding of coal mining environments, operations and procedures."
Following the report, the Miner Act made refuge chambers compulsory in all underground US coal mines, with all mines given until 2009 to have them installed.
Now you might say that a proactive employer, operating in the same exact industry in another part of the world, might view this report and its findings as a red flag and take action. In China, India, Russia, yes. Why not in Australia?
To date Australian coal has vehemently resisted the numerous calls for refuge chambers to be become mandatory at home, no-matter what the evidence presented to them. They are fixed in their mindset.
Instead they seem to believe that a combination of SCSRs, CABAs and escape ways where available are all that's required to provide a viable alternative in an emergency. They believe it so strongly that there is not a single long duration refuge chamber in any Australian coal mine (to the best of our knowledge).
If this fixed mindset was confined to one side of the fence regarding workplace safety obligations then it would seem, however wrong, a more conventional dispute. However the coal producers themselves are not alone. In recent conversations I've personally had with the regulatory authorities in QLD, it seems they too are in agreement.
At a recent mining expo in QLD a mines safety inspector literally stated "what we don't need is miners climbing into refuge chambers".
Despite the actual evidence to the contrary it seems all sides are missing the point. Or are they just deliberately missing it?
There's a very human factor to this debate – one that's difficult to talk about but perhaps explains some of the underlying resistance.
By installing refuge chambers you're allowing the possibility for an incident to become drawn out and intensely personal.
Take recent incidents such as the Chilean miners rescue and even the recent fire at Newmont's Waihi operation in New Zealand. They show how the entire world can suddenly become a captive audience witnessing a story of human endeavor and endurance unfolding before them.
The Australian coal position, strengthened by the events at Pike River holds that a rescue attempt would not be allowed if there was an ongoing risk to others. This is always the correct decision. However with modern refuge chambers equipped with communications systems which can even include live video feeds it is difficult to even comprehend the pressures on those involved and the heartache that might unfold if a decision were made not to attempt a rescue.
Perhaps this is all too true. Perhaps it would be condemning an entrapped miner to a slow death. However what shouldn't escape us is that if the same miner were able to be rescued from a refuge chamber (as in Chile and Waihi), then by not making them available this collective industry mindset is actively condemning that miner to a quick, and certain death.
A quick and certain death – maybe it's better that way. What about when you personally know that you could have acted to prevent it. Having touched on Pike River already it's worth noting here that approximately 18 months before the fatal explosion occurred MineARC was contacted by then coal mine safety and training manager, Neville Rockhouse for a quote on our coal refuge chamber range. We supplied the quote on the 7th August 2009 and followed up as is custom, but were advised that no sale order would be forthcoming.
What later emerged from the Royal Commission investigation, was that the provision of said refuge chambers at Pike River became the subject of an ongoing feud between Rockhouse and then chief executive Peter Whittle – Whittle denying the case for refuge chambers as a means to counter the well documented risks caused by a lack of a second egress (or means of escape from the mine) in the event of an emergency.
Neville Rockhouse lost his son Ben in Pike River. Neville's other son Daniel survived the incident. His account is telling for the debate on refuge chambers. After waking face down in the dirt, coughing, eyes watering from methane and CO and ears ringing, Daniel got up, grabbed a fellow survivor and dragged them both to a short-term 'fresh air base' which he thought was equipped with SCSR's and basic first aid. It wasn't even attached to mine air supply. After waiting for a period they made the decision to leave, eventually reaching the surface.
Daniel is a hero who saved himself and his mate.
His account begs the obvious questions: How many others survived the initial explosion? How many others could conceivably have made it to a refuge chamber if one were available? It seems likely now that we'll never know the answers.
Back to Australian coal's current philosophy and their prescribed solution.
One area that I hadn't spent much time thinking about until recently was the focus on SCSR's as the prescribed primary means of self-assisted escape.
On the face of it, and again as long as an escape path wasn't being restricted, the method made sense as long as they were readily available. My observations in many mines, coal and other have to date suggested that the number of SCSR's underground was alarmingly close to the number of miners.
Unfortunately a very personal experience recently caused me to focus very strongly on SCSR's. I had the opportunity to test a unit given to me and I enthusiastically took it up.
I was keen to experience it having been told about some of the less palatable aspects of using one. Remember, if you put one of these on underground it is because the situation is critical and quite literally your life is on the line. I was given a full explanation on its use and under supervision I confidently activated it only to discover that this brand new unit was faulty. All it took was about 45 seconds for me to be gasping and ripping it off my face. The executive from the company was embarrassed and I was left pondering on the issue of survival.
It is incredibly sobering to realise that had I used that SCSR in a real emergency I would have likely been a casualty under the Australian coal industry stance.
So we have refuge chambers that the US and Chinese industry say are essential, US research in particular indicates that had they been available in previous disasters lives would have been saved. We have refuge chamber manufacturers making full use of available technology to protect miners and keep them in communication with the surface for extended periods of time. We have miners and their families who have certainly indicated to us that they believe refuge chambers should be in coal mines.
What we don't have is a forum for discussion. We understand that a review of the use of chambers in coal mines was held in 2010 involving coal producers and the regulatory authorities. What didn't appear to occur was for someone to ask us what was possible.
We would like to see this changed.
*Paul Medcraft is the Australasian business development manager for MineARC.