Gimme shelter

IT IS not often Supply Side delves into the underground coal realm – too dusty and a suspected canary allergy being the main reasons. However, today he must make an exception because he can see a glaring oversight in safety there. By Noel Dyson
Gimme shelter Gimme shelter Gimme shelter Gimme shelter Gimme shelter

Inside a MineARC rescue chamber.

Noel Dyson

For years the coal rescue mantra has been quite simple – if it goes bang get out as fast as you can.

To help with this coal mines have self-contained self-rescuer change out stations along the way.

The idea with these is that miners stop there to swap out the SCSRs before continuing on up to the surface.

However, there is no allowance for the safety rescue chambers that underground hard rock miners largely take for granted.

Just a couple of weeks ago one of these chambers played a key role in keeping an underground gold mine’s workers safe.

On March 19 a truck caught fire at the Ballarat gold mine trapping 19 workers underground.

Those workers went into a safety chamber while the truck’s sprinkler system helped mitigate the blaze.

They were able to sit in an albeit tight, safe space with breathable air and air conditioning.

The chamber, from Strata Worldwide, had a carbon dioxide scrubber system that was activated in one of the units to maintain fresh air.

Ah, the coal miners will say. Those air conditioning and scrubber systems require power and that has to be made intrinsically safe to operate in an underground coal environment.

Also, the results of a fire in a potentially explosive environment such as an underground coal mine are markedly different to a fire in a hard rock operation.

Well, both Strata and its competitor Minearc have developed intrinsically safe safety chambers for coal mines.

Those chambers are designed to handle the effects of a coal dust or methane blast and to protect occupants from those and the fires likely to come after them.

However, they are hitting a wall with the operations which do not wish to install them.

The mines are sticking to the mantra of get out quickly.

What is wrong with putting some of these chambers in the coal workings?

Sometimes, escape to the surface may not be possible. This way those miners will have the option of seeking immediate shelter until the emergency has passed.

Minearc Australasian business development manager Paul Medcraft has long called for the New South Wales and Queensland mines safety inspectorates to make such chambers mandatory.

He suggests a Queensland government report acknowledging the need for underground safe havens has been buried for the past five years.

“The report itself – rather than being widespread, well read and freely available – was difficult to find and having been found was available to purchase for $44 with an interesting twist; the online application to purchase required me to answer the question: ‘How would my receiving this document benefit the Queensland coal industry?’,” Medcraft said.

“Surely a better question would be: ‘How is it benefiting the Queensland coal industry to keep the document in an obscure location and charge for its purchase?’.”

Medcraft said the US, China, the UK and other countries had all passed refuge chamber legislation and Australia was lagging behind.