Is mining safe? How long is a piece of string? It’s hard, dangerous work and the hours are long and arduous – breaking rocks in the hot sun, the pale moonlight, or underground has always, and will always be, high risk.
Falling rock kills, and so does complacency.
Haulage, the roadtrain operation of moving ore from the mine site to the crusher plant, is just one of the operations of a mine site, but it is classified as one of the most dangerous.
The following job description might put things in perspective
As the road rises the 300-ton roadtrain slows. You might come down 12 gears on the 18-speed gearbox before reaching the summit, all the while watching 20 gauges to monitor differential temperatures, pyrometer, oil pressure, oil temperature, coolant temperature and so on, while listening to two-way radios and watching for oncoming traffic – the other roadtrains hauling iron ore on this private dirt road. The beast crests the summit and begins the inexorable climb back up to top gear and top speed (90km/h).
Each roadtrain is made up of a prime mover, with three drive axles and three trailers, two with dolly units.
The entire vehicle is 55 metres long, weighs 85 tons unloaded and around 300 tons loaded. The trailers are side tippers – the right side tips hydraulically and you tip on the run – travelling about 20km/h, dropping the rear (dog) trailer first, then the second and the first last.
Often when you’re dropping the dog, there’s so much dust, you’re just winging it, watching the mirror in the hope of seeing something. There’s the ever-present danger of rocks tumbling back under the wheels, ripping tyres apart, or worse, damaging brake boosters and springs. You “listen” with your backside, alert for the through the seat feel of trailer wheels riding up over a rock.
Safely unloaded, you take the rig around to the go line and inspect tyres (all 74!) for damage, spring packs for breakage, air bags for deflation and wire ropes and hydraulics for wear and breakage. With luck, you’ll have time to grab a coffee and find a new album on the iPod before pointing the beast at the haul road once again.
100kms later you’re back on to the mine ROM pad and starting to load. It usually takes about 15 minutes to load 200 to 220 tons on the three trailers.
Loaded, you walk around the rig (that’s a 110-metre walk) to ensure no rocks have fallen under wheels, where they could rip a $1000 tyre apart in a split second, then, (the only time you’ll use the clutch, until you stop), engage crawler gear and gently ease down on the throttle. Too much power and you could break drive shafts trying to get 300 ton off the line. Any gear other than crawler will also put too much strain on the drive train.
Then it’s thunder time, pedal to the metal. We do 12-hour shifts, three round trips a shift (600+ kilometres) day and night. Each round trip takes about three-and-a-half hours.
Passing an oncoming roadtrain is always a time of considered thought – it takes a kilometre to stop from 90km/h. Even though there’s up to five metres between you, the reality is it’s usually less than that and dog trailers sometimes get a swing on them of a couple of metres. Pedal to the metal means safety: if you back off, the whole rig will start to swing, as push/pull forces exert themselves at every sway point on the rig.
If two road trains were to meet head-on, at a combined speed of 180km/h with a combined weight (one train empty) of 385 tons, both drivers would die. No ifs, no buts. It has happened. If you accidentally ran off the road into the surrounding woodlands, your only hope of survival would be to keep the hammer down – come off that throttle and three trailers would smash into the prime mover cabin, although it’s likely the off-road excursion would rip the drives out of the prime mover anyway, leaving the trailers to crash into the stalled prime mover.
The company is beyond stringent with safety – it’s drilled into every pre-start and toolbox meeting and any incident, no matter how small, has to be reported and investigated. Each rig has a forward-mounted camera, constantly recording the vehicle’s progress. Drivers are called up and monitored throughout shifts, especially on night shift, when all sorts of factors, such as poor visibility and sleep patterns become vital parts of the safety equation, not to mention the emotional well-being of the operator.
Drug and alcohol testing is of course mandatory.The call by the Australian Manufactoring Workers Union for less stringent drug and alcohol testing is stupid – there can be no place on any mine site for serial recreational drug users or heavy binge drinkers.
Good companies monitor and encourage their people to seek help in times of stress and send people home on full pay. It’s an economically sound decision, given the possible outcome of a stressed, tired driver unable to concentrate on the operation of the vehicle. Each rig is worth around $1.5 million, not to mention the 200+ ton payload of iron ore.
And of course, haulage is only one facet of a modern mining operation.
Most people work what’s known as two on, one off (two weeks at work, then one week off). The first week consists of seven 12 hour days and the second week, seven 12 hour nights. At the end of the two week period you’re so tired the break is absolutely necessary and, to clear up a common misconception, you’re not paid for your week off.
So, is it safe? The answer is a qualified yes. Generalisations can be way off the mark, dangerously so, however it’s fair to say that severe injury and deaths on mine sites, (catastrophic equipment failure aside), usually occur when safe work practices have either been ignored or have not been put in place.
The greatest advice anyone gets on a mine site is, “If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Stop.” The only heroes on mine sites are the cautious.
Greg Ross started work on mine sites in the mid 1970s and has worked at gold, nickel and iron ore mines across the state. He currently works at a WA iron ore mine where he is the health and safety representative for his crew.