Straight up safety

Candour was the stand out theme at this year’s Australian Mining Safety Conference, with the straightforwardness and honesty of speakers catching many delegates off guard.

Opening the event was Dan Hunt the director-general for the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines.

He used his address to shine light on a worrying over-representation of contractors in mine site deaths and injury numbers, he announced that the sector’s lost time industry rate spiked in 2011/12 and warned mining cannot rely on good fortune alone to protect its valuable employees.

Already this year two contractors have died on Queensland mine sites, including an Incitec Pivot contractor who was fatally injured near Xstrata's Mount Isa Mines copper smelter, and a Santos sub-contractor who died from a suspected heat stroke whilst working on the GLNG upstream project in Roma.

He stressed that while the mining sector remains the largest contributor to Queensland’s economy, and safety has improved dramatically over the last few years, there is still much work to be done.

Hunt put the onus back on the industry saying “we all have a role to play to achieve zero harm”.

The straightforwardness of Stewart Bell’s presentation caught many delegates by surprise, as no one expected a government department head to be so frank about such serious and divisive issues.

Bell attacked the Pike River disaster head on, saying complacency was to blame.

“Pike River management and regulators weren’t doing their jobs, there was no gas monitoring, and no union check inspectors,” he said.

He warned that Pike River is a lesson for Australian miners, warning if the sector didn’t stand up and take notice it could just as easily happen here.

“Australian’s were also mismanaging Pike River, it wasn’t just a bunch of kiwis,” Bell said.

He noted that the incident could’ve been avoided if all involved including the NZ inspectorate had been actively doing their jobs at the level expected by high risk industry.

Bell also announced new fatigue guidelines that are being reintroduced in QLD in an effort to better manage the risks associated with mining shift work.

Reworking the guidelines became a priority after the number of miners who died in road fatalities driving to and from work was on the rise. 

Enlisting the assistance of industry, government and the unions, the new guidelines will be a consistent “work in progress”, replacing the previous ones that were 11 years old.

“Mining organisations can influence safety by changing shifts, bussing people home or providing accommodation,” he said.

“We’re still killing people; we see the same accidents over and over again.”

Bell explained that fatigue management is about risk management, and that industry needs to be constantly thinking about risk factors which include scheduling of work and managing breaks.

“When people work through a set of night shifts they become more susceptible to accidents because of fatigue,” he said.

The guidelines note that consecutive night shifts made workers more susceptible to fatigue related accidents.

Technological developments in safety were analysed by Jock Cunningham, mining research theme leader at the CSIRO who said "sound engineering controls keep people safe".

He explained that improvements in automisation and Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping technology can improve mine site safety and productivity.

“Automisation can isolate people from hazards while improving productivity,” he said.

The event's sponsors QMW Industries launched its new 4WD Q~Transporter mine site vehicle and the company's managing director Jeff Samuels discussed the importance of mine site vehicle safety.

He said that to achieve zero harm both human and machinery hazards need to be identified, and that while vehicle Falling Object Protection Structures [FOPS] is mandatory on mine sites, Roll Over Protection Structures [ROPS] is based on a mining company's risk assessment.

“If machinery is engineered incorrectly it gives a false sense of security,” Samuels said.

“Protective structures save lives and prevent crushing from rollovers.”

Paul Medcraft the international business development manager for MineARC Systems raised some important questions regarding the lack of refuge chamber regulations in Australia.

He began by praising Australia’s safety standards, saying “the Australian mining industry has gotten so good at safety that we now export ideas and ideals not just goods and services”.

Medcraft explained that there are no refuge chamber regulations in Australia, just guidelines and said that in some mines there are no working refuge chambers and in others managers don’t know how to use them.

“Would you climb into a refuge chamber if it could reach 60 degrees & 100 per cent humidity in the next three hours? I think not,” he said.

During Medcraft's presentation, Australian Mining received a number of tweets from the audience agreeing that refuge chambers on their sites were at best an afterthought and were not well maintained.

Sandvik automation and product line manager, Grant Field discussed the development of the company’s autonomous drills which improve productivity and safety, allowing one operator to supervise multiple drills from the comfort of an office.

Field said that about 80 per cent of the software that has been developed for these drills is to manage safe operation.

Hitting back at the argument that a move towards autonomous machinery will result in job losses, Field said while this may be the case, it also provides an opportunity for upskillng, career progression, and heightened on-site safety.

The afternoon sessions addressed mental health issues in mining.

CEO of the Centre for Regional and Remote Mental Health, Jennifer Bowers said that one in five people will suffer from a mental health issue and that compromising mental health leads to work accidents.

She also addressed the cost of stress related absenteeism and presenteeism, which in 2007 was estimated to be $10 billion.

What was surprising is that presenteeism is far more costly then absenteeism.

Presenteeism is when employees show up to do a rotation when they are not in good mental or physical health.

With an estimated 390,000 people directly or indirectly employed by the Queensland mining and resources sector the direct costs of absenteeism and presenteeism for companies alone is about $171 million, Bowers said.

The mining sector is rife for mental illness issues, with high workloads, poor communication, high-risk work environments, harsh climate conditions, and isolation all highlighted as factors affecting mental health.

She explained that mental health prevention is better and cheaper than cure, and the longer these issues are ignored the more expensive they get.

Addressing mental health is proven to improve retention rates, reduce absenteeism, lift morale and improve productivity and profitability, Bowers said.

FIFO work environments are unique with long work hours, heavy workloads, social isolation and hazardous environments, TMS Consulting CEO Helen Wood said.

Australian Mining Safety Conference sponsor TMS presented its recent fatigue research findings, saying fatigue leads to increased accident risk.

Wood explained that fatigued, tired staff heightens the risk of human error.

“Human error is the biggest risk area when it comes to safety,” Wood said.

“If you are not cognitively performing at your best safety can be compromised.”

What the company’s research found was that fatigue reduces reaction times, attention spans, and that the affects of fatigue are very similar to the affects of alcohol.

TMS said that a holistic approach is needed when addressing fatigue.

“To a degree working hours is just one aspect of fatigue. Camp design, good mental & physical health all help,” Wood said.

As a whole, the day sparked comprehensive discussion about the state of real versus perceived mine site safety, reflecting on positive improvements achieved by the industry and highlighting opportunities as miners continue to work towards achieving zero harm.

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