Underground coal mines continue to make significant  strides towards better safety, writes Leon Louw.

With an industry target set to eliminate mining fatalities by 2020 and reduce lost time injuries by 20% from January 2017, the pressure is on all mining operations and its suppliers to meet this vital goal.

Transport-related incidents are still one of the top causes of fatalities on all mines. While deaths in mining fell 5% to a record low of 73 in 2016 and injuries fell 15% to 2 662 last year, there is still a long way to go to meet the 2020 target.

According to Anton Lourens, managing director of proximity detection system (PDS) manufacturer Booyco Electronics, PDS is a key part of the sector’s strategy to implement zero harm, and is already a legislated requirement for underground coal mines. These coal mines need to ensure their systems are ‘fit for purpose’ to comply.

Deep underground coal mining has traditionally been a lot riskier than opencast coal mines. This is mainly because of problems associated with mine ventilation and the potential for mine collapse. Explosions, because of high methane levels underground, are one of the most lethal dangers for underground coal miners. Coal mines, therefore, have implemented rigorous safety procedures, health and safety standards, and worker education and training, which have resulted in significant improvements in safety levels in both underground and opencast mining.

Coal mines make strides
“Coal mines continue to make strides towards better safety, with the injury rate in 2016 down 11% to 183 from 206 in 2015,” says Lourens.”Continued progress requires ongoing compliance and dedication to implementing not just the letter but the spirit of the law,” he adds.

PDS allows for interventions where a potentially dangerous situation exists between a pedestrian and a machine. The system includes a sensing device to detect the presence of an object in a working area, and an audible and visual alarm to both the equipment operator and pedestrians as they enter danger zones. It can also help locate people and machinery if there is an emergency underground.

Apart from the safety aspect, this technology helps mines to locate pedestrians and vehicles underground, providing data that can be analysed for patterns that affect production efficiencies.

The groundwork for the wider application of PDS has already been laid by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) through an amendment to Chapter Eight oldie Mine Health and Safety Act (M1-1SA) in February 2015.1( is now required that PDS be installed on all mobile equipment on mines.

Mines are required to assess significant risk in terms of moving machinery and people, and to put an action plan in place to mitigate that risk. One of the challenges, however, is that some mines still consider PDS a ‘grudge purchase’ and do not rally understand their legal responsibility to choose suppliers whose equipment is fit-for-purpose.

“While it maybe tempting for a mine to select the cheapest equipment, they will need to prove in the case of an inspection or an accident that the equipment is up to the task and compliant,” says Lourens. “Even from our point of view as PDS suppliers, we have a legal responsibility to deliver a reliable solution, as suppliers can also be legally charged if the equipment fails to comply.”

He says not only does the revised MI-1SA put considerable legal onus on both users and suppliers, but the DMR has also been actively enforcing compliance with the new legislation.

Return to accountability
Although recent developments (like the PDS) are effective in its application, Noddy McGeorge, principal mining engineer at SRI Consulting, feels that the technology could also take away some of the individual’s accountability to maintain a safe environment and not engage in risk behaviours. “Many of these technologies are cost-effective in the large mines, but the changing structure of coal mine ownership to small operators means that much of the cost-driven safety philosophy may nor always be available.’Therefore, a return to self-awareness of the risks is a more effective philosophy,” says McGeorge.

The other concern with the cost-driven safety approach is the enforceability over time when the operators are under economic constraints or there are technical issues in getting the safety items to work.”This acceptance of the correct behaviours in relation to risk and safety issues needs to be part of the everyday behaviour of people and not reserved for when at work where the compliance is expected” adds McGeorge.

A second coal mine safety concern is the trend of changing the responsibility for safety From the prescriptive style of regulation to the self-created codes of practice. These are affected by the changing structure of the industry and the ability of some oversight on the safety issues that focus on protection against liability claims rather than being motivated by the real issues at hand. The current compliance to codes is also a concern when the limited skills of the oversight authorities are driving the wrong behaviours in relation to safety. The numerous disputes around section 54 stoppages are a symptom of this behavioural pattern. “Unfortunately, we measure success in safety in reduced fatality or reportable injuries, which are concrete measures and disputable, but they are often rare events and the result of a risky behaviour. The wider appreciation of less risk adverse behaviours being enacted would be equally as effective but cannot easily be measured: says McGeorge.

The third safety issue, according to McGeorge, concerns the bodies available to research the safety issues and provide the appropriate measures, Historically, this was done in the large companies that motivated and trialled new equipment. Similarly, there were adequately experienced research organisations who could support the technical analysis. “With the changing structure, this is now being passed to the equipment suppliers to come up with the innovation and they are not always resourced to carry this expenditure until concepts are proven,” says McGeorge.”The safety item then gains commercial competitive advantage so it is not easily shared across non-participating players. Similarly, the technical support is losing some of its capacity and experience to evaluate some of the safety issues and is becoming overly focused on health issues rather than operating safety issues,” says McGeorge.

SA falling behind
Mike Lincoln, general manager at MineARC Systems Intelligence, is not convinced that die South African coal mining industry has improved its safety measures. “Our mining industry is rapidly falling behind in good safety practices compared to the rest of the developed world,” says Lincoln. “One area that is lacking adequate regulation is the requirement for emergency refuge in ease of underground emergencies such as fire, fall of rock, or in the event of miners being trapped underground,” adds Lincoln.

Best practice followed by most international mining houses in accordance with international mine safety regulations now stipulates the use of a comprehensive, standalone life support system within a completely airtight structure (refuge chamber). The refuge chamber should also be able to supply sufficient oxygen and air scrubbing for regenerative breathable air. It requires air conditioning to control the build-up of metabolic heat and communication systems to ensure occupants have the best chance of survival while they await rescue. “In contrast, South Africa has an outdated and inadequate regulation in Chapter 76 al the Mining Act, which requires just a single airline from the surface for the supply of breathable air,” says Lincoln.

The United States and China – both large coal producers – have recognised that minimum standards for safe refuge are required to ensure that miners have the best chance of survival in an underground emergency, by implementing the 2009 Department of Labour Refuge Alternatives for Undermine Coal Mine Final Rule and the 2012 State Administration of Coal Mine Safety General Requirements and Technical Conditions of Refuge Chambers for Use in Coal Mines, respectively. Unfortunately, these changes have been reactionary with lives lost during major mine accidents such as the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia in 2006 (12 lives), the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia in 2010 (29 lives), and over 2 000 deaths annually in China. With these new regulations now in place, such refuge is considered the norm in US and Chinese coal mining industries, and compliance is policed by their respective mine departments.

A matter of economics 
According to Lincoln, the pushback in South African mining comes down purely to economics. The cost of a standalone, fully equipped refuge chamber can be anywhere from R60 000, depending on occupancy and duration. “The overall cost to mining companies would therefore be considerable, as most would require multiple chambers to house all underground personnel. As a solution, South Africa can learn from China. In China, the government legislated and gave coal mine companies a tax relief of six renminbi (about R11) per tonne to fund the implementation of effective underground safe refuge,’ says Lincoln. It appears we forget all too soon the major South African coal mine disasters like the Coalbrook Coal Mine in 1960 where 437 lives were lost, or the Hlobane Vryheid Coal in KwaZulu-Natal in 1983 where 64 miners perished. Unfortunately, it will likely take another major incident with a large loss of lives and public outcry before the South African DMR considers catching up with the rest of world,” Lincoln says.

Shortcomings to negotiate
According to Lourens Jansen van Rensburg, I-Cat business development and marketing director, the MHSA is supposed to protect underground workers through the formulation of national policy and legislation. “The mining legislation should be monitored and enforced by the mining sector. Since 1993, the annual number of fatalities has reduced from 615 to 73 in 2016 —the direct result of the various safety initiatives adopted by the ruining industry in collaboration with the Chamber of Mines and under the auspices of the Health and Safety Council,” says Van Rensburg.

However, he adds that certain shortcomings in the industry be difficult to negotiate.”Training in risk is not well established. In South Africa, the absence of consistent approaches to risk management is a concern,” says Van Rensburg.

Van Rensburg believes that South Africa’s history of division along the lines of race, language, class, gender, and educational opportunity presents significant barriers to building common cause around occupational health and safety. “Performance-based approaches in health and safety law do not meet the needs of companies that are small and under resourced, and that require explicit guidance on what is required of them.”

I-Cat’s dust products limit airborne dust that can result in lung disease and other illnesses, while its fire suppression systems assist in a safer working environment and can extinguish the source of fires when they occur.