Do you put road functionality before safety?

Mine haul roads and the management of traffic across mine site operations can present a significant risk to site personnel and visitors.

While safety may be given consideration in the design, layout and operation of mine roads, the elimination of crashes through mitigating hazards by applying best practice processes is often not well understood by designers and managers or conducted in a systemic way.

The reasons for this? The business of mining has traditionally been about production, not managing roads and traffic.

Sure, roads are necessary, but only to provide site access and facilitate the transport of product from pit to processing plant.

However, mine roads are much more than that. They are an asset to the business and effective management of mine roads. The mixed traffic using them can result in significant cost savings in travel time, maintenance, fuel, vehicle wear and tear and others.

Most importantly, effective design and management, applying best practice principles and a safe system approach can greatly assist to prevent crashes, save lives and avoid delays due to site shutdowns while investigations are completed.

While there will be many in the industry who dispute this view of mining’s relationship with the management of roads, pointing to their organisation’s mine haul road design guide, to their traffic management plan, or to efforts on site to manage risk to levels “as low as reasonably practicable,” the fact remains that people continue to die and suffer serious injuries in preventable transport related incidents on mine roads.

When a review of a mine’s road infrastructure is undertaken by ARRB’s team of experienced road safety, traffic engineering and road design engineers, either in a proactive approach as road safety audit reviews, as part of an independent or in-house investigation following a crash incident, the feedback from many clients invariably results in a “Thank you, a really thorough report but the recommendations you make are:

  • not how things are done here
  • not practical
  • too costly to implement
  • impact on mine productivity
  • increase haul costs
  • won’t work.”

Workplace health and safety (WH&S) legislation requires safety to be upmost in minds and there are initiatives developed that are important planks in the delivery of safety.

But fundamentally, the adoption of the aforementioned Safe System approach that guides road designers and site operations to better management of traffic, not only on haul roads, but on all road transport related infrastructure, is lacking.

It is true that each day public roads in Australia experience far greater death and serious injury than occurs on all the mine sites across the country.

However, the response by government and the community has been to prioritise action supported by record levels of funding.

The management of the public road space has seen (and is seeing) a fundamental change in the approach to road safety.

There is a process of continual research, examination, investigation, and analysis, along with a shared learning of what actions work. Good practice evolves and road agencies are adopting an integrated, safe system approach to eliminating death and serious injury.

The same cannot be said of the approach applied to the design of roads to improve safety within the mining sector, a sector which is arguably far better placed to affect a controlled environment in managing roads and traffic interactions.

Put simply, through countless road safety audit reviews and investigations of vehicle crashes on mine sites – most involving a fatality and serious injury – it is clear there is much more that can be done to improve safety on mine roads.

Fundamentally there needs to be informed industry developed mine road design and traffic management guidelines, developed with safety as default position and applying modern road design practices.

But there are other measures that can be applied to help with incremental improvement. For example, road safety audit reviews of existing road/traffic infrastructure and of road and intersection designs.

A routine process for public road infrastructure

Crash incident investigations that involve appropriately trained, experienced and importantly independent road traffic safety engineers are essential if lessons are to be learned.

Our experience at ARRB has shown that such input can add significant value to ICAM investigations by providing not only the expertise, but an external perspective. One that is able to question why something is done the way it is, and through that highlighting, where road infrastructure may (or may not) be a contributing root cause of a crash or the severity outcome.

You may be sitting reading this and thinking, “We always consider safety on our mine sites.” And yet we are called out to mining crashes again and again in Australia and identify the same road factors again and again.

Issues such as setting appropriate speed limits, lack of signage, inappropriate use of traffic signs, a lack of delineation and others are clear as day in hindsight as being areas which could have prevented a crash.

The ‘blame the driver’ response is common with the reaction “Let’s invest in more training.”

We all know this control sits low on the hierarchy, placing, as it does, the burden of road crash prevention on the human element, which we know is prone to making mistakes.

Why not consider the cost and safety effect of a self-explaining road? As a mine road manager, you should be asking, “Is this haul road inherently safe?” “How can we eliminate as much risk as possible using good road design?” “Are we looking at the site as a system?” “How does our system protect its users?”

The Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) has over 20 years experience with road safety audit reviews, road design/traffic management guidance and crash investigations on mine sites across Australia and overseas.

We have collated this experience into training workshops and best practice guides that seek to provide the mining industry with the skills to improve road safety outcomes.

David McTiernan is ARRB national leader, transport safety, and can be reached on david.mctiernan@arrb.com.au. General enquiries can be made at mining@arrb.com.au.