News, Safety regulation, Work health and safety

Head over heels: Keeping workers safe at heights

worker, heights, safety at heights

Falls from height are a leading cause of injury in the mining industry, but how do those risks actually come about?

You don’t have to be afraid of heights to understand the risks of working a long way about the ground.

In a 2020 study, Safe Work Australia revealed that 122 workers lost their lives due to falls from height between 2015–19 – that’s 13 per cent of all workplace fatalities in that period.

While the mining industry is only marginally represented in these figures thanks to its rigorous safety standards, accidents can still occur.

An earlier study revealed that falls from height caused the second most fatalities in the mining industry between 2007–12. Five workers lost their lives during that timeframe, with two falling down a shaft, one falling from a building or walkway, one falling from a ladder, and one falling from a truck.

The same study found that falls, trips and slips accounted for 22 per cent of serious workers’ compensation claims.

Falls can happen on mobile equipment, fixed structures, and even in underground mines. The risks are many, but luckily there is no shortage of helpful resources from regulators and safety experts to help keep workers safe when working at heights.

Working at height in underground mines, a publication from Western Australia’s Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP), is one such resource, laying out the most common risks that workers might encounter on a mine site.

Some of those risks are explored below.

Working near openings
When working near openings, it is first essential to consider whether the work or travel in question can be done elsewhere, thereby eliminating the risk of a fall entirely. However, in some situations work inextricably involves moving around openings, such as a bulldozer operator preparing a stockpile over a valve.

In one such case, which occurred on a Queensland coal mine in 2023, a bulldozer was stockpiling coal over a closed valve which, when opened, would allow coal to be pushed into a void and onto a conveyor system below.

Although the mine site employed physical indicator poles to mark the boundaries of the void, this was only a partial reference. In addition, the indicator poles were not always visible to the operator due to the shape and size of the stockpile.

Without visually confirming the location of the valve (as was required by the site’s standard operating procedure) the operator commenced work, reversing over the true location of the valve and falling into the void.

Fortunately, the operator was recovered by the emergency response team without injury.

GPS units were not fitted to the dozer, as is standard at some sites, and other GPS units on the mine were not programmed with valve feeder locations.

After an investigation, Resources Safety and Health Queensland found that geofencing and visual confirmation of the valve might have avoided the incident.

Stopes are another common height hazard on mine sites. Once ore is mined from a stope tunnel, they are typically backfilled. However, voids can occur within this backfilling, which can give way in the event of ground movement or heavy equipment passing over the stope area.

Such an event occurred at a Queensland coal mine in February 2023. Two miners tragically lost their lives mine when a stope void collapsed beneath the weight of their vehicle, causing the ground to give way and the pair to fall 15m.

Though workers should always follow procedures, keeping people safe near openings like open valves and stopes depends largely on mine planners.

According to the WA DMP, a competent person conducting risk assessments concerning work near openings should have due regard to factors such as ground stability, visibility of openings, adequacy of lighting, suitable barriers, proximity of operations, structural soundness of backfilled stopes, trip hazards from displaced rock or materials, and other potential hazards. 

Working in ladderways
Ladders are a primary means of access to some working areas in many underground mines. In some cases, however, these ladders are years old and have begun to deteriorate.

The difficulties of working in ladderways can also be exacerbated by potential deficiencies in ventilation, visibility, manoeuvring space and ground conditions.

To mitigate the risks, the DMP said sites should:

  • use properly considered, designed and installed means of safely moving equipment through the ladderway (rope pulley systems, slinging, etc)
  • wear a full body harness attached to an approved fall arrest system that is hooked up to a suitable anchorage point
  • train workers and assessing them as competent in the use of fall arrest equipment.

To safely ascend or descend a ladderway, workers should:

  • keep both hands free for climbing and face the ladder
  • maintain three points of contact when moving
  • securely sling loads on the back and shoulders
  • hoist heavy or bulky loads rather than carrying them.

Mobile work platforms
Equipment such as scissor lifts, work baskets and purpose-designed platforms provide workers with access to difficult-to-reach areas, usually at height.

The DMP said that most fall incidents involving mobile platforms occur when workers are not correctly connected to an anchorage point, when there is a sudden movement of equipment (being struck by a vehicle), when the platform is located on an uneven surface, and when workers are inadequately trained.

When it comes to mitigating these risks, DMP suggested a number of strategies, including:

  • using scissor lifts that are appropriate for their environment, including purpose-built lifts for underground mines
  • fitting the mobile work platform with suitable anchorage points for harnesses
  • protecting controls from accidental activation
  • fitting the equipment with the means to safely lower the basket in an emergency or a power supply failure
  • use of pre-start checks of the equipment and working environment
  • limiting the transport, tramming and number of workers in the basket
  • not allowing workers to stand on basket rails to gain extra height
  • providing an effective means of communication between a worker in the basket and the operator
  • training and instructing of workers operating the platform in safe operating procedures for the particular brand and type of equipment, as well as the safe use of fall arrest equipment and emergency rescue procedures.

Plant and equipment
Any time plant, including mobile equipment, requires a worker to climb a ladderway or staircase to gain access, it introduces the risk of a fall from height.

Poor lighting, slippery surfaces, insufficient railing, quality of ventilation, unstable ground and collisions with other equipment are just a few of the risks that could result in a fall.

Many of these risks can be eliminated by applying design standards and safety criteria to plant at the purchasing stage. A few good features to look out for are suitable access and egress (ladderways, steps, handrails), suitable anchorage points, and common service points accessible from ground level.

An example of this is Liebherr’s gargantuan R9800, one of the largest excavators in the world. To counterbalance the height risks, it features enlarged walkways with handrails and non-slip perforated steps, as well as a generous amount of lighting to help keep workers safe.

Plant and equipment can also be retrofitted with height safety features like better lighting and handrails. Companies like Bend-Tech manufacture specialty handrails for mining vehicles. Not only is this approach more economical than looking for an entirely new vehicle with updated safety features, but in some instances these safety experts can actually improve aspects of the original equipment manufacturer design, such as Bend-Tech’s vibration-resistant handrails which reduces cracking.

Although many areas in the mining industry involve work from heights, there is a wealth of knowledge, technologies and safety practices available to help minimise the risks.

This feature also appears in the March-April issue of Safe to Work.

Send this to a friend