Sago verses Beaconsfield

THE Sago and Beaconsfield mine disasters have once again drawn attention to safety practices and procedures at mine sites, Ross Campbell* discusses the lessons to be learnt from both cases.

Staff Reporter

Published in June 2006 Australian Longwall Magazine

In the wake of any crisis, it rarely takes long for the blame game to get underway as the dust settles, and the Beaconsfield mine collapse was no different.

The Australian Workers Union launched the first salvo, opening fire on mine management by detailing safety failures dating before the April 25 rock fall that killed one miner and trapped two others.

Issues have since been raised about the level of training in occupational health and safety at the mine, and about the safety of existing mining methods before the incident.

Whether the Tasmanian disaster was preventable remains moot. But it now stands as one of the greatest rescues in Australia’s mining history. Australians have been managing safety issues and events in mines for almost 130 years and the Beaconsfield episode was yet another wake-up call. There is still much work to be done in both preparedness and response.

We cannot pre-empt the Beaconsfield inquiry nor guess whether measures taken between the rock fall in October 2005 and ANZAC Day this year, were sufficient. Were safety measures approved by the Tasmanian Inspector of Mines? Were they implemented? Was OH&S training sufficient? We will know in time.

But what we do know is that this year’s world-shattering mining accidents were both public crises – Beaconsfield here, and the Sago coal mine in West Virginia in the United States in January.

Different mines, different locations and markedly different outcomes. But they had commonalities: both were centres of highly emotional and intense international media coverage, and both rescues were encircled by community concern, outrage and fear.

Sago’s tragedy was the loss of 12 lives. Beaconsfield’s triumph was the successful rescue of two men trapped underground for 14 days.

The explosion at Sago was a disaster not only in rescue terms, but it also quickly became notorious as millions of viewers around the world watched the unfolding tragedy via live television news.

The Sago incident happened at 6.30am on Monday, January 2. There was a 90-minute delay in notification procedures. At 5.30 pm that day, management clearance was given to enter the mine. At 9.10 pm, management announced that one body had been found. At 11.45 pm, the tired, washed-out chief executive delivered the unexpected news that 13 miners were alive.

Then, at 3.09am, the CEO faced the media cameras again, stating that there had been “miscommunication”. He called it “the worst day of his life”, delivering the extraordinary news that 12 people had died and only one person had survived.

In ensuing hearings during May, families asked why it took the US Health Safety Office 11 hours to start the search for the trapped crew and why it took so long to drill an air hole to the miners. And they wanted to know why it took three hours to tell them the truth that 12 of the 13 trapped men were dead.

What has become clear from the recent US Department of Labour Mine Safety hearings is the following: the rescue was slow in its response, aside from safety precautions; protective seals on anti-blast safety doors in the mine were too weak; and at least four air-packs issued to the doomed men (which they needed because of gas in the mine) failed – and this came from Randall McCloy, the sole survivor.

We know Sago had a poor safety record. The 2005 injury rate was more than three times the national average. Between October and December 2005, there were three mine inspection orders and 46 violations, 18 of which were “serious and substantial”

For Beaconsfield, the safety figures are not yet available, but we know there was a cave-in and rock fall due to seismic activity six months earlier. The mine was closed for a number of weeks and specialists were brought in to develop safer extraction techniques and monitoring. Safety was a concern since that collapse, with some of the mining community asking whether safety was compromised. There was even the suggestion the mine operators were capitalising on record gold prices by accelerating the metal extraction process.

At Beaconsfield, there was an earthquake at 9.23 pm on April 25. The mine rapidly went into emergency evacuation. Fourteen miners reached safety cells – specially developed and protected safe areas with dedicated oxygen supplies, food and support systems.

The 14, led by shift manager Gavin Cheesman, were taken to the main shaft and up to the surface. Three men from the nightshift – Larry Knight, Todd Russell and Brant Webb – were down 925m and trapped.

Rescue teams were mobilised rapidly and the response began once mine management gave safety clearance. On April 26, the remote-control earthmoving loader with two cameras began to work in the rock fall area, and discovered the body of 44-year-old Knight a day later.

Then on April 30, using sound and heat-scanning equipment, the rescuers made contact with the two trapped miners. The rest is now history.

Although emotions were running high above ground among the waiting families, there was confidence in mine manager Matthew Gill. He was determined that the rescue would be executed safely.

At Sago, there was no rescue team ready to mobilise. The first team arrived four and a half hours after the explosion and was then held back, putatively for safety reasons.

There was a general lack of management control. The communications centre was not under the control of the mine and unauthorised here to read on.

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