Taking refuge - the case for safety chambers

MINEARC’S safety refuge chamber was put to the test last week at BHP Billiton’s Perseverance nickel mine after a rock fall trapped a worker for 16 hours – with the company saying the incident highlights the value of refuge chambers. Kate Haycock reports.
Taking refuge - the case for safety chambers Taking refuge - the case for safety chambers Taking refuge - the case for safety chambers Taking refuge - the case for safety chambers Taking refuge - the case for safety chambers

Dennis Morton

Kate Haycock

Perth-based MineArc is in the unusual position of making a product which the company hopes no one has to use, and last week’s incident marked only the third time one of the company’s refuge chambers has been used in Australia.

MineArc communications manager Ben Johnson told MiningNews.net the BHP incident was a “really clear justification for refuge chambers in mines”.

He said BHP’s use of the chamber was a good news story because it showed just how well the chambers operated and how they could be used in an emergency.

“If it wasn’t there, in this case, it could have been a completely different result,” he said.

The MineArc safety chamber used in the nickel mine was a series II, eight-person chamber.

The most important aspect of the chamber is its life support system. It includes a scrubber, which takes out the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the chamber’s air, and an air-conditioning unit.

“If you leave it for long periods of time it can create toxic levels of CO2 in the chamber,” Johnson explained.

“And if you are in the chamber for a long period of time, everyone is going to be giving off metabolic heat … if you have 10 people underground, the amount of heat that is given off can get to dangerous levels within a couple of hours.”

The chambers are generally hooked up to the mine’s own power supply and ventilation system, and so long as these remain attached the chamber can operate indefinitely.

The chambers are also fitted with a battery back-up which can operate for up to 36 hours, with a 48-hour pack available as an upgrade.

The company makes chambers for up to 30 people for hard rock and coal mines, and Johnson told MNN the company has around 85% of the hard rock market in Australia, with most underground mines installing safety chambers as a matter of course.

In the coal industry, it is a different matter.

Guidelines in the hard rock industry have refuge chambers as “best practice” and Johnson said mine safety inspectors would penalise mines that did not have refuge chambers installed.

There is no such regulation in the Australian coal industry, with most mines focused on getting staff out of a mine as soon as possible if there is a safety incident.

“We would argue you can do both with refuge chambers – in some cases people just can’t get out of the mine,” Johnson said.

The company has developed what it calls an “intrinsically safe”, powerless coal refuge chamber which performs the same life-preserving systems using liquid CO2.

“We’re the only refuge chamber manufacturer in the world which has developed a scrubber and an air conditioner which is intrinsically safe,” Johnson said.

The company is urging the coal mining industry to look at the refuges and Johnson said the Perseverance incident showed the value in the chambers not just for the hard rock industry but also for underground coal mines.

Offshore, the company’s efforts to push into coal are paying off, with MineArc announcing a major Chinese distribution deal with the Shenyang Branch of the China Coal Research Institute (SYCCRI) earlier this month.

The SYCCRI is a safety research and development body for the Chinese coal industry, and MineArc worked with the body to develop regulations over the compulsory provision of refuge chambers in all licensed underground coal mines, using MineArc’s coal refuge chamber as a best practice model.

The regulations are expected to be introduced by late 2009 and mark a move by the Chinese authorities towards greater mine safety in the country’s notoriously dangerous coal industry.

“We’ll probably start selling into the Chinese market as soon as that regulation comes in,” Johnson told MNN.

MineArc will also be looking to sell into hard rock in China at a later date, and plans to expand its products into the tunneling industry in the country as well, while also eyeing opportunities in South America and India.

In hard rock, the company has also just released a new ultra-portable chamber for single-entry headings in tighter spaces underground, utilising the powerless technology developed for the coal industry.

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