Mine safety: Too much, too far?

Mine safety, I can imagine you thinking. “Groan! Too many regulations! No time! No money! Stops production! Too much paperwork!”

Come now, be honest! Is that what you thought?

Well, you’re not alone. This is a common reaction from all levels of the quarrying industry. Or did you think the following:

  • Mine safety laws protect me and my mates.
  • My employees and contractors are looked after.
  • When I look after safety, my workforce looks after me.
  • This will save me money in the long term and keep me out of prison.
  • I don’t want to go back to the way it was.

So, have we gone too far? Is safety now over the top? Should we go back to the “good old days”?

There has always been a balance between production, cost and safety. Let’s see how safety has changed in mining and quarrying and ask ourselves these questions at the end.

The ‘Good old days’

{{image2-a:r-w:300}}Mining is an old industry. The oldest known mine is the Ngwenya ochre mine in Swaziland, dated at 43,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians mined malachite at Maadi between 2600 BC and 2500 BC. Mining was mainly done by slaves, who were disagreeable, needed feeding and were certainly less reliable than a diesel loader!

So, we have been mining and quarrying across the world for a long time. Then, in the 18th century, mining became increasingly mechanised. Mining was motivated by profit and there were no prescribed safety regulations. Children were used as cheap labour and could fit easily into the low tunnels (see illustration above). “Miner’s Lung” disease (pneumoconiosis) was common, leading to many early deaths. Physical hazards were always present and there was no regulation to protect worker safety.

What do you think so far? It was certainly cheaper, slaves and kids were quite productive and agile workers didn’t get hurt!

Well, many people around the world felt working conditions in mining were unacceptable. This has led to improvements since 1840 which form the basis of mining safety law in Australia today. Consider the timeline below:

  • In 1840, the mining royal commission was set up in Victorian England, following concerns about the mining industry. The findings were that accidents, brutality, lung disease, long hours and highly dangerous and adverse working conditions were normal! The public outcry led to the formation of the Mine Inspectorate in 1843.
  • In 1851, the first Australian mine safety laws were introduced.
  • In 1895, the Quarry Inspectorate was formed in England, following the Quarries Act of 1894.
  • In New South Wales, the Coal Mines Regulation Act was introduced in 1912, followed by the Coal Mining Act of 1973, the Coal Mining Regulation Act of 1982 and the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act 2002.
  • In 2013, NSW introduced the Work Health and Safety (Mines and Petroleum Sites) Act, with the regulation following in 2014. These laws supported the Work Health and Safety Act and Regulations in 2011, which followed the national model WHS laws introduced that year.

Modern safety laws

Even with improved laws, disasters continued to plague mining in Australia. Up to 286 miners lost their lives from 1887 to 2006 in the mining disasters below:

  • 1887 – Bulli Mine disaster (gas explosion) – 81 dead.
  • 1902 – Mount Kembla Mine (explosion) – 96 dead.
  • 1921 – Mount Mulligan (coal dust explosion) – 75 dead.
  • 1975 – Kianga (explosion) – 13 dead.
  • 1986 – Kianga (explosion) – 12 dead.
  • 1996 – Gretley (inundation) – four dead.
  • 1999 – Northparkes (windblast) – four dead.
  • 2006 – Beaconsfield (mine collapse) – one dead.

Combined with changes in legislation, employer initiatives and union pressure, this spurred efforts in Australia to improve mine safety. Based on fatalities in 2016, Australian mining was much safer than the transport, agriculture, forestry, fishing and construction sectors.

Today, many countries lag far behind Australia in mine safety. In 2014, more than 302 miners died in a mine collapse in Turkey, leading to the dubious distinction of the worst safety record in the world based on fatalities per tonne produced. In 2019, 240 people died after inundation from the collapse of a tailings dam wall in Brazil. In Myanmar, 50 people died following a tailings dam collapse. Seventeen died due to a gold mine collapse in Indonesia. Deaths in Chinese coal mines have been common up to the present day.

Improvements in Australia have come from sustained efforts to improve mine safety, starting back in 1840 in England, that have learned from past disasters and adopted new and better ways of managing risks.

All Australian mines and quarries are now covered by safety legislation that embodies a number of key principles, as follows:

  • The elimination or control of hazards and the management of risks is now expected (where practicable).
  • Workers must be consulted (yes, there will be debate).
  • Key mining risks are known and must be evaluated. Plans must be developed at each site for these risks.
  • Health risks must be considered, particularly dust inhalation.
  • A safety management system (aka SHMS) must be in place for a mine or quarry to legally operate.
  • There are major penalties for owners and officers who neglect safety, including prison time.


So, back to our questions:

  • Have we gone too far?
  • Is safety over the top?
  • Should we go back to the “good old days”?

We are now a long way from where mining began, when life expectancy was short and the quality of life was low.

The standards set in our current mining laws reflect the expectations in our society today, which is a long and healthy life! I think this is a better place to be.

What can you do? How about:

  • Reflecting on how far mine safety has come since the “good old days”?
  • Thinking about what is needed in your workplace?

Taking action! You have the power to make a difference.

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