Lessons learned from devastating mining accidents

mining accidents

Hopkins believes engineers and technical experts should have authority to make safety decisions in a mining operation.

Andrew Hopkins is no stranger to deep diving into accidents at mining operations, and his new book further cements that reputation.

The Grosvenor mine incident in May 2020 was a devastating blow to five men, their families and the other workers at the mine.

An explosion along a coal face in the mine, triggered by spontaneous combustion of high levels of methane, caused extensive burns to the five workers.

Two years later, Australian National University’s Emeritus Professor Andrew Hopkins has released a book, Sacrificing Safety: Lessons for Chief Executives, detailing the incident and examining the human and organisational causes that led to the event.

Mining accident
Hopkins’ book is aimed at the managerial aspect of mining organisations.

Examining the accident at an organisational level, Hopkins identified fundamental warning signs and failures in the structure and planning of the operation that contributed to the disaster.

“There were fundamental warning signs that were not heeded. The safety systems which have been put in place are only effective if they are followed,” Hopkins told Safe to Work.

“This was an avoidable incident, because there were warnings which were not taken seriously and not acted upon effectively.

“The cause of the accident was a high level of methane gas that was ignited by the spontaneous combustion occurring in loose coal exposed to the atmosphere. Methane is often present in a coal mine, as is loose coal.

“But a build-up of methane can be detected through measuring instruments, and for this to get to a level that caused such a catastrophic event shows a failing in the management of this operation.”

Hopkins’ book is aimed at the managerial aspect of mining organisations, contextualising the Grosvenor mine accident as a series of faults that stemmed from a preference for ad-hoc fixes rather than long-term solutions.

He advocates that skilled engineers and technical experts who are aware of these types of threats should have the authority to make decisions, rather than merely offer advice. This is a key part of Hopkins’ message.

“The Grosvenor mine dealt with their spikes in their methane readings on a case by case basis but didn’t consider or invest time into why there was a large number of spikes, which by its very nature was an indicator of extremely high risk for those working in the mines,” he said.

“There should have been an effort made to drive down the number of these spikes, in the interests of protecting workers.

“The management structure within mining companies needs to include people in senior management positions who are engineers and technical experts with an understanding of how the mine operates from personal experience.

“They shouldn’t be acting as advisors, because advice can be ignored. They need to have the authority to tell managers what to do in the interests of safety.”

Through research and interacting with different members of the mining industry, Hopkins found the cause of mining accidents of this type isn’t a failing of personal protective equipment (PPE) or hazard detection systems and technology. Rather, he said, it is failure to deal with hazards at source and a lack of attention to warnings signs in place to prevent workers from being exposed to these hazards.

“The law requires that principal hazard management plans be developed for known major hazards. They must specify in detail how these hazards will be managed and they must be regularly audited” Hopkins said.

“One of the big takeaways from this accident is that even though you may be doing the right thing, ticking all the obligation boxes and ensuring the minimums for safety at the mine site, having actual solutions and plans in place with the right staff to oversee them is imperative for mine safety.”

One of the important insights of the book concerns the role incentives can play in major mining accident causation.

“Grosvenor mine paid large bonuses to miners and manager alike to produce coal as quickly as possible, but there was no incentive to manage major accident risk effectively,” Said Hopkins.

“The bonus structure, in other words, prioritised production ahead of major accident risk management.”

Hopkins’ book has a powerful message about the true cost of pursuing profit over safety and the way organisational structures of mining operations can contribute to or detract from the effective management of major hazards.

“Reactive, rather than proactive, would be the way to describe the ways in which mining sites are dealing with these high-risk potential incidents,” Hopkins said.

“At times it may be necessary to slow or defer production in the interests of worker safety, even though this may be financially disadvantageous to the company.

“Companies cannot afford to disregard safety to reach their targets.”

 To find more information about the book, click here.