3.2 Safety

As identified in previous sections, many of the safety issues that are present on a mine site do not affect the community directly. However, it is recognised that the consequences for the families or communities of injured or ill workers may be significant.

The following are considered to be the most significant issues for community safety related to mining operations:

  • road safety
  • mine site access
  • tailings dam safety
  • blasting safety
  • the transport of explosives and other hazardous materials

Coal seam gas

Unlike other mining ventures (e.g. coal) in which operations are largely confined within a single site’s boundaries, coal seam gas (CSG) is usually extracted on widely distributed patches of land leased from landowners. When multiple CSG companies operate in one region, the traffic that they (and their contractors) generate aggregates (over time and space) to have a cumulative impact, with the most serious potential consequence being the endangering of drivers and pedestrians (workforce and community members). The level of imposition (whether that be positive or negative) may differ according to a range of factors, including the nature of the community, its geographical characteristics, pre-existing industries (such as agriculture and tourism) and nuances of the CSG operations.

3.2.1 Road safety

The minerals industry presents road safety challenges to rural communities in which it operates. These challenges can be greatest when the industry first enters or grows rapidly in a region. Local residents may not be used to heavy vehicle traffic, increased light vehicle traffic that corresponds to shift work, an increase in population generally, changing conditions of roads (improvements and degradation), and shifts in patterns of traffic (for example, more vehicles on what were less travelled roads). Changes occur in the quality, timing and volume of traffic in town centres as well as in outlying areas. In addition, there may be new residents in the community, brought by a resource boom, who are unfamiliar with local roads and local driving practices (such as yielding to farm equipment on the roads). Such factors can be contributors to an increase in the number of vehicle accidents in the local region.

Mining companies’ road safety interventions may need to extend beyond their fleets of company vehicles and their workers’ commutes and include consideration of the driving, walking and riding practices of community members in the locality.

CASE STUDY: The Light Vehicle Project—a community road safety initiative

This intervention in 2011 was developed by Energy Resources Australia to promote driver safety on the remote Arnhem Highway, a 260-kilometre road that links the company’s Jabiru uranium oxide mine to Darwin in the Northern Territory. While the intervention is primarily directed at ensuring the safety of the workforce and contractors, it is also aimed at the broader community of travellers, including local commuters, tourists and drivers of heavy vehicles.

The intervention was triggered by an internal audit that revealed road travel on this highway to be one of the biggest safety risks for ERA employees. As a result, a risk-based management program was developed to identify key causes of accidents on the Arnhem Highway, to develop controls to prevent and mitigate risks and to monitor the effectiveness of these controls.

The Light Vehicle Project targeted known causes of local crashes: changing road conditions, overtaking of heavy vehicles, fatigue on long stretches of road, the unpredictability of tourist vehicles (including sudden stops to view sites of interest), wandering stock and animals, setting and rising sun and heavy rain. Control measures focused on vehicle safety, roads, roadsides, vehicle speed and road-user behaviour (including seatbelts, alcohol and fatigue). A stringent set of ERA safe driving rules specific to driving on this highway were developed and are now embedded into the company’s procedures. A DVD giving safety advice about driving on the highway was developed and made freely available to the general public. ERA has also run awareness sessions in the community in Jabiru and Darwin at local events, road safety forums and schools. For example, one local event focused on vehicle pre-start checks, and an ERA light vehicle mechanic gave advice on improving the effectiveness of checks.

This intervention has been nationally recognised, winning two 2012 Australian Road Safety Awards.

3.2.2 Mine site access

Controlling access to mine sites, whether active or abandoned, is another area where the safety of the community must be considered. This is potentially a serious problem where informal small-scale mining is undertaken or where trespassing could result in accidents, leading to injuries and even fatalities.

A number of potential hazards are associated with uncontrolled access, including the following:

  • Surface shafts and other vertical openings: Falling is a particular risk in abandoned workings. Vertical or inclined shafts can be hidden by undergrowth, darkness, water or loose debris.
  • Interaction with heavy mobile equipment or plant: On operating sites, the potential for interaction with heavy mobile equipment on haul roads or entanglement in conveyors is a safety issue.
  • Landslip: During the mine life cycle, there is the potential for geotechnical failure resulting in landslip. During construction, the key risks are associated with cuttings and large excavations. In the operations phase, there is potential for the localised failure of pit walls, waste emplacements and haul road earthworks. Following closure of the mine, there continues to be a risk of failure of the final pit walls and mineral waste emplacements, resulting in risks to anyone who may be in the area after the closure.
  • Water: Water in mines can be deep. If it fills an area with steep sides, it might not be easy for a person to climb out.
  • Bad air: Abandoned mine workings may be hazardous due to pockets of low oxygen levels or high concentrations of dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide. Coal mines are especially prone to containing such gases.
  • Hazardous materials: Mines can contain various types of heavy metals. Bacterial action can create acids and other compounds that are hazardous to humans. Acid mine drainage is of great concern in some areas. Mills and other processing areas may contain traces of cyanide and mercury compounds that were once used to separate precious metals from the ore.

Drowning is the no. 1 cause of death in abandoned mines in the USA. Most people involved in this type of accident went to a quarry to swim, but quarries are extremely dangerous places to do so. Steep drop-offs, deep water, sharp rocks, flooded equipment, submerged wire and industrial waste can make swimming risky.

Source: Geology.com, www.geology.com/articles/abandoned-mines.shtml

CASE STUDY: Porgera Joint Venture (PJV)—illegal ‘mining’

Illegal mining is a complex and difficult issue to manage and one of the principal challenges of mining at Porgera, Papua New Guinea—a country where a relatively low standard of living is evident.

Illegal miners are people who evade the PJV’s perimeter security and enter the mine property or the special mining lease without permission with the intention of stealing gold-bearing ore. Those involved in illegal mining are trespassers and are breaking the law.

This differs from artisanal and small-scale miners, who generate income from labour-intensive mining activities based on either formal legal or informal mining rights. Barrick Gold Corporation and the PJV have an interest in a mutually respectful and peaceful coexistence with lawful artisanal and small-scale miners.

Safe work practices are non-negotiable at Porgera. There are strict safety rules and procedures in place that minimise risk and ensure the safety of employees. The issue of illegal miners at Porgera relates directly to safety. Illegal miners are frequently unfamiliar with the significant risks associated with mining operations and the geological structures of the pit wall. By entering unsafe areas of the mine and active mining areas, they put their own lives and the lives of employees at risk.

The design of the open pit at the operation and the unstable nature of some of its geological structures make the pit walls an extremely dangerous place for people who are untrained and unfamiliar with these surroundings. Despite this, some illegal miners still attempt to access the pit and the old underground mine workings via the sheer face of the pit wall. The risk of serious injury or death due to falling is extreme in this situation.

Effective communication within the wider community is essential to building greater awareness and understanding of mining operations and the risks and dangers associated with trespass and illegal mining. The PJV engages in community-based public education campaigns on the unlawful nature of and risks associated with illegal mining and trespassing. Community awareness programs are also aimed specifically at illegal miners to ensure that people trespassing on the mine site are aware that it is unlawful and dangerous to do so, and that they could be injured or killed by rock falls, dangerous ground or heavy machinery.

Source: Barrick Gold Corporation, http://s1.q4cdn.com/808035602/files/porgera/Illegal-Mining-at-PJV.pdf

3.2.3 Tailings dams

Two dominant safety issues are associated with tailings dams:

  • the physical safety of the dam
  • safe containment of any toxic substance.

Any tailings dam must ensure physical, radioactive and chemical safety for both the environment and the community during mine operation and after closure, taking into consideration long-term stability, extreme events and slow deterioration. Further detailed information on tailings dams can be obtained from the leading practice Tailings management handbook (DITR 2007).

CASE STUDY: Mount Polley mine tailings dam, British Columbia, Canada

A tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley open pit copper and gold mine occurred on 4 August 2014. It resulted in the loss of about 17 million cubic metres of water and 8 million cubic metres of tailings and other material into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. An emergency response was undertaken by the province involving various agencies throughout August and into September 2014. A pollution abatement order under the Environmental Management Act was issued on 5 August 2014 and amended on 27 May 2015 to abate the discharge, undertake an environmental impact assessment of the breach and implement remediation activities. A letter of understanding between the province and the Soda Creek Williams Lake Indian Bands outlines a collaborative approach to jointly address all aspects of the tailings breach. The Ministry of Environment led the response for the environmental monitoring, impact assessment, mitigation and remediation of the affected area and worked closely with First Nations, local governments, provincial and federal agencies, and public representatives.

Source: Government of British Columbia, http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/eemp/incidents/2014/mount-polley/

The images below show a NASA satellite view of the earthen dam at Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, which breached on 4 August 2014, sending contaminated water into nearby lakes.

Satellite view (before dam breach) of the earthen dam at Mount Polley Mine in Columbia
Before dam breach

Satellite view (after dam breach) of the earthen dam at Mount Polley Mine in Columbia
After dam breach

3.2.4 Blasting safety

Blasting at mine sites, particularly when close to site boundaries, can have impacts on the surrounding community, infrastructure and environment due to vibration through the air (overpressure) and earth (ground vibration), and the generation of dust, fumes, noise, odours and flyrock. Flyrock is the undesirable throw of debris from a blast and can cause severe injury and property damage.

Blast impacts can directly or indirectly affect the health and safety of surrounding communities. Fumes and dust can directly affect health (see Section 3.3.1), and flyrock can directly compromise safety. In contrast, other impacts, such as vibration, may be more likely to exacerbate stress reactions in nearby residents, which may be an indirect pathway to ill-health. Vibration may cause residents to feel anxiety about potential damage to their homes, property, commercial interests and ecological sites of significance (see Section 3.3.6).

Blast mitigation and management measures should manage any potential risk to the public, communities, mine personnel, livestock and fauna on surrounding lands, to transport networks and infrastructure and their users and to heritage sites through controls such as:

  • complying with shotfiring safe work designs, equipment and procedures
  • monitoring air blast overpressure and ground vibration for each blast (to demonstrate compliance)
  • setting up blast exclusion zones
  • limiting blasting activity (for example, to weekdays between 9 am and 3 pm, not on public holidays, with a maximum number of blasts averaged over a 12-month period)
  • considering meteorological conditions to avoid adverse weather (for example, noise-enhancing conditions or winds that would blow dust or fumes towards neighbouring residential areas)
  • notifying landholders of the blasting schedule, with up-to-date, widely accessible information)
  • carrying out property inspections and investigations
  • maintaining road closure management plans to ensure the safety and protection of road users and to minimise potential impacts on road users, local residents and businesses
  • having an appropriate system to respond to local residents’ complaints and issues
  • coordinating blast schedules with neighbouring mines to minimise the cumulative impacts of blasting.

3.2.5 Transport of explosives and other hazardous materials

Mining and processing operations transport, store and use a range of hazardous materials, including fuels, process reagents, lubricants, solvents and explosives. These can present safety risks to the community if not appropriately controlled. The transport of explosives is covered by licensing requirements, the Australian Code for the Transport of Explosives by Road and Rail and the Australian Dangerous Goods Code.

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