Underground mining safer than open cut

DESPITE the host of safety risks in underground coal mining, Queensland Mine Safety and Health Commissioner Stewart Bell views open cut coal mining as more dangerous.
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Queensland Mine Safety and Health Commissioner Stewart Bell.

Blair Price

He said to draw a conclusion that underground is less safe than open cut mining is not supported by the facts.

“It’s actually more dangerous on the surface than it is underground,” he told ILN.

While recent statistics show there are more accidents in surface coal mines in the state, Bell did note there are smaller numbers of underground workers and underground mining was highly mechanised.

But Bell agreed that underground miners might be more safety conscious than those in the surface coal operations.

“They are working very closely as a team. Team camaraderie is very, very strong in underground coal mines,” he said.

“The guys look after each other to a large extent.”

The Commissioner said the Department of Mines and Energy will release its 2009-2010 annual report in a couple of months.

The report will provide lead indicators, as well as lagging indicators such as lost time injury frequency rates.

Bell said the report could possibly include more information on injury severity rates and to provide a better picture the injury data will be divided into open cut, underground, coal and metalliferous sections.

National OHS laws

As part of the National Mine Safety Framework, this week Bell will meet some of his interstate peers in Brisbane and in a couple of weeks there will be a meeting in Perth.

“The idea is that the three big mining states will harmonise their legislation as close as we can,” he said.

But he observed that each state of Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia thinks it has the best safety legislation.

“That’s where we sometimes have difficulties starting from,” he conceded.

Inspectorate’s independence

Bell became commissioner last year after a series of amendments were made to the state’s mining laws.

The need for a commissioner was indentified in the findings made by the Queensland Ombudsman in the Regulation of Mine Safety in Queensland report, presented in mid-2008.

Ombudsman David Bevan found that the Queensland Mines Inspectorate was not inappropriately influenced by the mining industry, but he said there was a “reasonable perception” it was.

“This is mainly because of its location and reporting structure within the Department of Mines and Energy, which is the department responsible for promoting and encouraging mining in Queensland,” Bevan said.

Bell does not see any problems arising on this issue under his watch.

“I’m quite comfortable with the way the inspectorate is sitting at the moment in terms of independence,” he told ILN yesterday.

“I don’t have any problems defending the way we operate.”

Collision avoidance

Bell said a couple of different systems for proximity detection and collision avoidance are likely to get intrinsic safety approvals in the first or second quarter of the 2011 calendar year.

He was very supportive of the technology and said he was concerned that we still have people moving into no-go zones behind heavy machinery underground.

The Safety in Mines Testing and Research Station falls under Bell’s supervision, with both IS and flame-proof testing.

“We try to extradite the stuff as fast as we can,” Bell said on the issue of delays caused by the IS approval process.

“There is a process that has to be followed, there are Australian standards involved here, there are also international standards, there has been some consolidation internationally through ICEX scheme, where recognition of other testing can take place in Australia – which makes it a bit quicker in Australia.

“But we still need to be really careful we don’t let something through that might not be quite right.”


The issue of fatigue came to a fore recently for the inspectorate when one of its mine inspectors was forced to drive off the Bruce Highway to avoid a likely head-on crash with a vehicle driven by a fatigued mine worker who was suspected of having a micro sleep behind the wheel.

Bell said QMI was about to release fatigue guidelines through advisory committees it runs in the state.

The inspectorate also plans to look at shift rosters to address fatigue problems, and is working on a separate fatigue project with the state’s transport department.