Duty of care: The role of mines rescue

Mines rescue services are no longer the white knights who charge underground to rescue trapped miners, so what is their new role in a changing world?

Staff Reporter

Mines rescuers are no longer the White Knights who charge underground to rescue trapped miners. This role became untenable in the wake of instances where the lives of rescuers were lost during abortive rescue attempts, compounding already tragic situations.

There is a pronounced shift away from surface-based rescue towards self escape and in-seam aided rescue, both of which appear to have major implications for the mines rescue services of Australia’s major coal mining states, Queensland and New South Wales. At a combined cost to the coal mining industry of about $5 million in annual levies, the Queensland Mines Rescue Service (QMRS) and its NSW counterpart, Mines Rescue Board of NSW, are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Is $5 million a year cheap insurance or an expensive overhead for the 60-odd mining operations serviced by the two bodies? Is the industry willing to support Mines Rescue services whose primary function is no longer underground rescue?

These are questions that look likely to be answered in the next 12 months. Further complicating the debate is the enshrinement of duty of care guidelines in new legislation. As one industry manager remarked: “From our perspective (as managers) things aren’t prescribed except the outcome. With this non-prescriptive legislation we feel that even if we had groups of inspectors and consultants overseeing our precautions there is the feeling that no matter what you do you’ll be wrong.”

The issue of duty of care sharpens the focus on who takes responsibility for sending a rescue team underground in a disaster. How willing will mine managers be in future to send rescuers into unknown environments, particularly if they feel they are culpable if anything goes wrong? Some observers argue that laying a paper trail for later scrutiny to avoid possible legal liability, could easily become the management focus under duty of care. Others interpret the Act to read that it is the group co-ordinating the safety effort which bears the responsibility of duty of care in an emergency situation.

Mines Rescue Board of NSW chief executive Murray Bird said in an emergency situation it was both the mine manager and Mines Rescue which had a joint duty of care to the rescue brigades. “Our role in an emergency is advisory to a manager, but our only power is we act as a safety barrier for the brigades. The critical role is saying, yes they can go in, or, no they can’t,” Bird said.

Nevertheless, under duty of care, any mines rescue effort needs to be able to withstand close scrutiny after the event. Supporting documentation outlining the precautions put in place by the rescue team must be generated before a rescue is launched. And while a mine may have an elaborate mine safety management plan, it is widely thought that every y eventuality cannot possibly be covered.

In an article in The Australian Coal Review in April, Robert Oliver, manager health and safety, NSW Minerals Council, suggested one outcome of the protracted Gretley Inquiry had been to “exacerbate anxiety about personal liability for safety breaches, rather than promote co-operative efforts to prevent accidents and injuries at coal mines”

In an emergency situation, with emotions running high, the real or perceived requirements of duty of care imply that valuable time would be lost while the safety plan is documented, partly to protect those involved from legal liability. At the same time, the hazards of sending in teams without proper assessment are well documented. In an article in the same edition of Coal Review, Greg Rowan, chairman of the Queensland Emergency Exercise Management Committee, said reactive responses through surface management and control teams, mines rescue teams and duty card systems had limited impact on survival rates in the first few hours of an emergency.

“A robust, proactive, integrated and well rehearsed self escape strategy is their single best chance for survival,” he said.

Against this background what is the ongoing role of Mines Rescue? There are typically four stages in a mine emergency: self rescue by the underground work force; aided rescue from able persons underground; aided rescue from the surface; and mine recovery. In Mines Rescue the focus of aided rescue from the surface is limited, especially under duty of care and in a lot of cases is not timely.

The two Mines Rescue operations in NSW and Queensland are carving out for themselves an important role in the area of training and emergency preparedness, providing those who work underground with adequate knowledge and technology to rescue themselves. (Underpinning the whole concept of self-rescue is the thorny issue of fitness for duty. Are the people who work underground physically and mental capability of self-rescue? Further research around this issue, while a political minefield, is clearly needed).

Malcolm Smith, Queensland Mines Rescue chief executive, said one of the main priorities of QMRS had been to put systems in place to assist self-escape. “In Queensland the philosophy has been around the fact that QMRS has always been a training organisation. They never had full-time personnel waiting to kick in for an emergency whereas NSW have been in that position for many years.”

Smith said the biggest challenge was developing systems and training mine personnel in escape systems. One of the things QMRS is looking at is potentially using conveyors to get people to the surface in a disaster situation — which in normal operating circumstances would be regarded as extremely dangerous. It is lateral thinking of this nature that Mines Rescue can bring during preparation for a disaster.

While NSW’s Bird agrees that mines rescue is no longer the chief function of Mines Rescue he points out that the way a Mines Rescue service is viewed by the industry is highly dependent on the frequency of use. In Australia that use is lower than countries such as South Africa and the US which have very reactive mines rescue services.

“I regularly hear comments like, do we really need the service, but after there’s been an occurrence at a mine you don’t hear those kinds of comments from that mine,” Bird said. “It’s where a mine or an industry hasn’t had an occurrence for years that the place of mines rescue gets called into question. NSW has had about 18 years between what I’d call a major occurrence, in which case, of course you’re in question. Our role has to change, but the way we are perceived has to change also.”

Bird said one of the hidden benefits of trained brigadesmen was their ability to avert potential disasters by responding rapidly to events like fires breaking out and to possibly assist other underground workers to escape from a mine.

“At the moment we’re training 380 brigadesmen, and that’s 380 people working in coal mines, in seam, who have a rescue ability and awareness.”