Up from under

Miners must be ready to conduct a rescue operation at any time

When two Saskatchewan potash miners encountered a fire early one Sunday morning in 2006, their first thought was to contact the surface dispatcher. But the fire had caused a power outage and shut down all phones. The miners retreated to a refuge station, or safe room, and erected shields to keep smoke and fire gases away from the area outside the station.

Eventually, other workers called the dispatcher, who initiated emergency notification. On the Monday morning, emergency response teams found all 72 underground workers safe in refuge stations throughout the mine and led them to the surface.

Managers in all industries must devote some time and effort preparing for emergencies. In the mining industry it’s part of day-to-day operations. Miners must know how to safeguard themselves and always be on the alert. Indeed, where hazards are extreme and the environment allows no easy escape, everyone needs to know the emergency response plan inside and out to prevent possible disaster.

Alex Gryska, general manager of mine rescue at Workplace Safety North (WSN) in Sudbury, Ont., which is responsible for providing mine rescue support for the province’s 40 underground mines, says a good rescue plan specifies exactly what is to happen in an emergency and what actions supervisors, workers and the employer will perform.

“The emergency plan will break down the roles and responsibilities of everyone. So everything is well-structured and spelled out. If it’s not spelled out that way, there’s weakness in the plan,” he says.

Saskatoon-based Cameco operates four uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan. The company adheres to provincial regulations, is subject to the rules of the Canadian Nuclear Commission and also sets its own standards, says Wayne Summach, program manager, emergency

preparedness and security. Where most mines require two rescue teams (usually composed of five volunteers) on site at all times, Cameco requires at least three.

“If a team of five goes underground, we need five at the ready for backup if something goes wrong. And for us, because we are remote, we also have an additional five on standby. So we maintain a minimum requirement of 15 on-site,” says Summach.

Supervisors receive training in emergency rescue both from the province and from Cameco.

“They must have so many hours of training on an annual basis, be physically fit and know how to fight fires underground. That’s a big part.”

Workers are trained on what to do when an alarm goes off. If something goes wrong, an alarm is pulled and, as in most mines, stench gas is released into the air. The gas, ethyl mercaptan, has a rotten-egg smell and tells workers they must go to a refuge station and wait there for further instructions.

“That’s a fail-safe system of alerting workers. With today’s technology they all have radios and there’s lots of communication available, so they’ll get other alerts. But the warning system is their notification to get to safety,” Summach says.

Refuge stations are lit and equipped with water, a toilet, tables, first-aid supplies, firefighting equipment, and effective means of communication. They contain oxygen cylinders, but often there’s a supply of fresh air.

“In hard rock, you can drill down. So with our main refuge stations, we have air lines in place and fresh air will come from (the) surface into the station,” he says.

Peter Bengts, chief inspector of mines at Yellowknife-based Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC), N.W.T. and Nunavut, says training goes on all the time. Emergency response teams are fully prepared to handle underground emergencies and also those on the surface, which requires them to learn firefighting, ambulance, first aid and HAZMAT.

“And two of the mines give them aircraft firefighting because they have jets landing at their air strip for crew changes. The teams are dealing with the same equipment as at the Vancouver airport. So they have a good breadth of training; they’re trained as firefighters and how to use a breathing apparatus so they can go underground for up to four hours,” he says.

Bengts inspects diamond, gold and tungsten mines and says the main hazard at these operations, located about 1,000 kilometres north of Edmonton, is injury caused by large vehicles. Fires are another frequent hazard. Large equipment usually has a suppression system built into it. When the operator hits a button, a dry chemical fire extinguisher sprays the engine compartment, fuel tank and transmission.

An important part of their rescue training, he adds, is an annual competition in Yellowknife. Using various scenarios, the two-day event brings together five or six teams and tests such skills as first aid, firefighting, rope rescue and the ability to make good decisions quickly. (See sidebar.)

Mining operations in Ontario include salt, gypsum, nickel, gold, copper and diamonds. Gryska says WSN, which responds to about three emergencies per month, classifies emergencies as fire (equipment-related and electrical) and non-fire. Among non-fire emergencies are toxic gases, oxygen deficiency, explosions caused by methane gas, falls of ground and rock bursts (spontaneous fracture of rock due to pressure).

Mine operators in Ontario are required to conduct a fire drill once per shift per year, and generally conduct two to four drills per year, he adds. However, each site must determine how often drills should be done, depending on their type of mine and how fast they can get miners out.

Supervisors should question workers often to ensure they know the emergency plan well, Gryska says.

“A good frontline supervisor will go up to a worker and say ‘Let’s assume there’s a fire or rock burst. What are you going to do?’” he says.

“The individual should be able to answer ‘I’m going to go into the refuge station. I’m going to find out how many individuals are there, call up (to) the surface and tell people there’s a fire underground. And this is the location.’ ”

Canadian mining operations are subject to both provincial or territorial and federal regulation, says Barrie Simoneau, director of risk management with the Winnipeg-based Mining Association of Manitoba. The association manages emergency preparedness and response for the province’s mine operations, which mine mainly nickel, gold, copper, zinc, tantalum, cesium and lithium.

Refuge stations, which are mandated under law, are usually located less than 300 metres from an active work area, Simoneau says. As a work area moves, so does the refuge area. However, in the event workers cannot get to a refuge station, they are taught how to safeguard themselves where they’re working — by making a field (a fire-resistant fabric or plastic

partition) to barricade themselves in from any smoke or gases or by using a compressed air line to breathe until help arrives.

“Also, if we know they’re going to be in a high-risk area, we give them a self-contained breathing apparatus (self-rescuer) that generates oxygen and scrubs carbon dioxide from their breathing. That’s either to protect them in situ or so they can get to a safe shelter,” he says.

In recent years, Simoneau says, mine rescue has changed significantly. Technological advances, such as new communications and infrared cameras which allow them to see through smoke, have made a big difference. There has also been, he believes, a change in mindset. People used to think that as long as they had a mine rescue team, everything would be all right.

“Now, there’s a greater emphasis on making sure that supervisors and workers are doing the right thing and able to protect themselves if something goes wrong,” he says.

“We also have to use proper prevention techniques so that we don’t have emergencies. The best mine rescue response would be never to call a rescue team out. That’s what we believe, what mines believe and what underground workers believe. They want to see mine rescue people only when they’re down training.”
Rescue competition (sidebar)
Rescue competition The annual Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC) Mine Rescue Competition in Yellowknife tests a wide range of skills, says Peter Bengts, the commission’s chief inspector of mines. During rope rescue, for example, competitors are required to set up ropes and pulleys to move a person or thing. One team may be asked to rescue someone trapped under a machine. Another may have to pull a stretcher through a smoke-filled obstacle course.

“It makes you work as a team,” he says. “Do they do as their captain says? Do they follow directions? Do they pass on information — because you can see only two inches ahead? One person may step on something, realize what it is, he has to tell the boss what he’s found. You can’t point at it because you can’t see it. So the task really pushes them.”

Winning teams go on to a western regional competition, held every two years in Fernie, B.C. The competition, held in June, helps the teams learn from each other, Bengts says. They see how people from other regions perform tasks and can compare other methods with their own.

“You start asking questions, discuss and things change. You like to know why they’re doing it differently, and then you think, ‘Maybe, we should change.’ A lot of it is information transfer,” says Bengts. “It’s a game, but it’s also a lot more.” 

Linda Johnson is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Canadian Occupational Safety.