Thursday, 27 February 2020
Accidents Happen - But Do They Have To?
Austmine Limited
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Accidents Happen - But Do They Have To?

When you think about innovations that made the world a safer place, what comes to mind? You could mention automotive inventions like seatbelts, airbags and anti-lock brakes. Or you could look to the world of medicine, where landmark discoveries like penicillin altered the course of history. You could talk about fire extinguishers, safety ladders, and digital innovations like fingerprint readers for fraud protection. All of these things make people safer in different ways.

You could also look to mining, an area that underpins much of the world’s industry. There was a time not long ago when commercial mining was a dangerous pursuit in which life and limb were routinely lost. One of the main reasons for this was the use of traditional black powder charges, which had been a fixture of commercial mining since the 16th century. From a safety perspective, using these charges to create explosions was a safety nightmare (and a logistical conundrum) from day one — but nothing better had come along, and raw materials were in high demand. As a result, heavy risk was taken and the wellbeing of miners was a shockingly low priority.

William Bickford changed all that when he came up with the modern safety fuse in 1831. Like many important breakthroughs, it was an elegant yet simple solution. By methodically weaving layers of jute yarn around a contained tube of gunpowder, and varnishing the product with tar for waterproofing, Bickford invented a fuse that burned safely, slowly and dependably. It drastically reduced the number of mining accidents related to explosives, redefined safety standards across the industry, and created incentives for others to push the boundaries of safety and productivity alike.

We cannot, of course, say that commercial mining has been accident-free since that monumental breakthrough nearly two centuries ago. The dangers of our profession have not been erased completely. Despite further innovations, such as sophisticated blast initiation systems, accidents can and do happen. According to Safe Work Australia, over two thousand injuries were reported in Australian mining operations in 2014-2015. This is nowhere near the top of the list — which says a lot about how far the industry has come — but it’s nowhere near zero. And when we think about the fact that 10 fatalities were reported across our industry in 2015, it becomes abundantly clear that we need to do better. Looking at a list of mining accidents compiled by Simtars, we see a range of accident causes, including: explosion, rock fall, poison gas, machine accidents, flooding, and fire.

Innovations around drill and blast are a good example of how technology has reduced accident rates throughout Australia and globally. In the 1930s and 40s, blasts were still responsible for the majority of mining accidents, despite the quantum leap of the modern safety fuse. More key innovations were needed, and as blasting continued to evolve through the end of the 20th century, safety standards continued to increase. Today, fewer mining accidents are directly related to drilling and blasting. The safety of downstream operations can, however, be affected by drilling and blasting that isn’t properly strategised. Slope instability, for example, is a potential  cause of accidents. More stable slopes are one of the advantages of an expertly planned blast.

There are other aspects of mining that continue to present serious safety challenges. Poisonous gases, falls, and machine accidents all have variable causes — but they highlight an important point. Technology is part of the safety equation, but so is communication and relationships. When downstream operations are connected to initial strategies of drilling and blasting, and when the input of downstream operators is integrated into a big picture strategy, individual mines — whether cave or quarry — can achieve zero accident status. And it’s only when individual operations elevate their safety game that national and global statistics begin to reflect important strides.

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