By Garry Kwok, National Technical Services Manager at Wormald
Considering the hazardous and remote nature of mining operations, mine sites are at a high risk of fire. Therefore, fire protection should be top of mind for mine site supervisors and operations managers.
A Queensland University of Technology study found that between 1990 and 2005, fire and explosions were one of the eight key causes of 85 per cent of mining fatalities in Australia.
Adequate fire protection is not only a financial and regulatory necessity, but an ethical one. Mine site supervisors and operations managers should consider the following to help ensure their sites are fire safe:
- Conduct a thorough risk assessment: A comprehensive assessment of fire hazards is the first step in developing a fire protection plan and mitigating the risk of fire fatalities and damage. Fire hazards differ for surface and underground mines, and vary according to a mine’s size, structure, materials, equipment and number of staff. Engaging a fire protection expert to conduct a detailed risk assessment can reduce the chance of hazards being overlooked. While hazards vary from one site to another, common fire hazards can include mobile equipment and mining vehicles; welding and cutting operations; and storing flammable and combustible liquids, including lubricating oil, grease, and diesel and hydraulic fuel. The mined resources such as coal, coal dust and methane, can also compound the risk of fire.
- Understand compliance and regulation requirements: A breach of fire safety regulation can incur significant costs and put staff at risk, so it is important site supervisors understand and comply with regulation requirements. Fire protection is covered by health and safety standards and legislation, which are governed by states and territories. In the Northern Territory, Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria, mining is regulated by general work health and safety legislation. New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have separate legislation to specifically regulate health and safety in the mining sector.
- Select and install appropriate fire protection equipment: Site managers must ensure appropriate fire protection equipment is installed. While requirements will vary from one mine to another, fire protection equipment may include fire sprinkler systems, water spray deluge systems, water mist systems, foam systems, vehicle fire suppression systems, breathing apparatus, gas detection units, thermal imaging cameras, fire suppression systems and portable fire equipment. Access is a critical consideration when installing fire protection equipment. If a fire breaks out, staff will have to act fast so it is important they can access equipment quickly and easily.
- Audit, inspect and maintain fire protection equipment: Having the correct fire protection equipment installed is vital but it is rendered useless if not in proper working order. Fire protection equipment should be regularly inspected and replaced or repaired as necessary. Other equipment, such as hoses, pipes and machinery, should also be cleaned regularly as build-up of dust and dirt can increase the risk of malfunction and fire. Site managers must keep on top of fire protection and ensure all fire protection equipment and systems are inspected and serviced regularly by a qualified fire protection specialist.
- Train your staff: Training is an essential step in protecting people and property against fire. Site managers should ask themselves, if a fire were to break out in the next 10 minutes, would staff be ready to respond correctly, quickly and confidently? An appropriate response to fire can save lives and reduce damage. As with the rest of a fire protection plan, fire safety training should be tailored to the unique requirements of a mine site and its staff. It is recommended that every mine site engages staff confined space entry, breathing apparatus training, fire extinguisher training and lay flat hose training.