Forthcoming changes and implications regarding the safe use and operation of miner’s belts could present a dilemma for the mining industry. Liz Foster writes for Australian Mining.
Whatever the industry, safety standards and operations are of paramount importance, and mining is no exception.
Its significance is illustrated by the enormous attendance at the 20th annual Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety conference, held in August this year, which forced a change of venue.
In 2005-6, falls and trips were one of the most common causes of compensated injury in the mining industry, accounting for 23%, or 522 claims in total.
When it comes to industrial fall arrest systems and devices, the design and quality of height safety standard equipment has consistently improved through the development and adoption of Australian Standards (AS/NZS 1891).
Recent revisions have removed the manufacture or use of belts for any fall arrest purpose from the Australian Standard, meaning that manufacturers can no longer attach compliance marks to miners’ belts.
The Fall Protection Manufacturers Association of Australia’s (FPMA) Gordon Cadzow has welcomed changes to the Standard as they provide greater clarity and specifications to differing situations.
However, he warns that users in the mining industry need to be fully aware of the forthcoming changes and implications regarding the safe use and operation of miners’ belts.
With the removal of equipment rated for restraint from the standard, all fall prevention equipment is now required to be rated for full fall arrest.
This change was made due to concerns that people can move, accidentally or intentionally, from restraint conditions into a fall arrest situation.
If this happens, the restraint rated equipment would not offer adequate protection.
This effectively means that miners’ belts, which are generally used in restraint applications and were certified for use as such, can no longer carry a Standards Mark.
Additionally, under the new standard, the design of the full body harness has been changed to include a mandatory frontal fall arrest rated connection, primarily to assist rescue and recovery operations.
Cadzow is concerned that these two changes may present a dilemma for the mining industry.
“Does this mean that all miners’ belts should now be removed from operation and replaced with full body harnesses? Does this also mean that all full body harnesses that do not have a frontal fall arrest point should be replaced with ones to the new standard?” he said.
While the Standard is not law, Cadzow said it is important to remember that its purpose is to advise and inform operators in the mining industry of the best possible safety precautions to be undertaken in all situations.
The implications of disregarding the Standard guidelines can have significant safety consequences for the operators, and legal consequences for the mining company.
An operator may find it inconvenient or uncomfortable to change from a belt into a full harness for certain situations. However, if a miner is injured in a fall arrest situation when only wearing a belt, a court of law would review the Standard to establish whether full safety practices had been employed.
Restraint vs arrest
The new standard now specifies the use of full body harnesses for all types of fall protection, i.e. fall restraint and fall arrest. However, it does not eliminate the use of fall restraint as an operating technique.
An operation is considered to be in ‘restraint’ where an individual is working at height but is physically prevented from reaching an area where a fall could be possible.
This restriction in movement is usually by means of a fixed length lanyard.
The standard also covers a new work method designated as restraint technique.
This allows the operator to vary his access within an area by shortening or lengthening an adjustable lanyard – relying on his skill and training to ensure that the length at any one time will not allow him to reach a point where a fall could be possible.
The use of this technique requires a much higher level of operator training and competence, along with clearly documented work method statements.
Miners’ belts Until now, miners’ belts have generally been used in restraint applications and have been certified to the restraint standard carrying an Australian Standards mark.
These belts can no longer carry that mark.
To remain in service, mine management must ensure these belts are only used in areas where the detailed risk assessment clearly shows that there is no possibility of a fall.
There are many applications where this can be assured, but in higher risk areas, should a fall occur, the mine would undoubtedly be questioned on why their risk analysis did not identify the fall risk.
If the fall risk was identified, the mine would be questioned as to why it did not elect to use equipment conforming to the latest standard.
The greatest risk of all is for the miner using the existing type of miners belt in a well managed “restraint” area to then move into a fall risk area without changing his safety equipment.
Most manufacturers have now released fall arrest rated full body harnesses to the market, complete with the mandatory frontal fall arrest point.
These new harnesses will fully conform to the new standard and will bear certification marks to Australian Standards.
As with miners’ belts, many mines will be using harnesses manufactured to the old standard and bearing the Australian Standards mark.
The ongoing use of these harnesses is considered acceptable subject to the normal pre- and post-use inspection by the operator, and the six monthly examinations by a suitably qualified competent person.
However, all new purchases, from the date of the issue of the new standard, should carry conformance marks to the new standard.
The ongoing use of the existing miners’ belts places more pressure on risk analysis.