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Emergency preparedness in mines

Lachlan Grant is the Northern Regional Manager for Mines Rescue and Coal Services, which specialises in education and training, workplace health and safety compliance, workers’ compensation, environmental monitoring, and mines rescue consulting and emergency response. He used his speech at the IQA conference to explain why quarries will benefit from ongoing vigilance in their health and safety systems.

What is Mines Rescue? What sort of specialist services does it offer the extractive industry and the broader community?

NSW Mines Rescue is part of the Coal Services group that provides specialised health and safety services, primarily to the New South Wales coal industry. We also service a broader customer base that includes other extractive industries, power stations, government agencies, and so on.

Mines Rescue was established in 1926 to provide emergency response services. That’s a statutory function that we maintain to this day under the Coal Industry Act. We are responsible for training and maintaining a brigade of emergency response personnel, including Mines Rescue employees and volunteer brigade members. We also provide expert advice and specialised equipment in the event of an incident. We’re on call 24–7, 365 days a year to provide peace of mind to industry. 

Mines Rescue is also a registered training organisation (RTO). We provide specialist training to mining and non-mining industries to help workers and employers manage risk and operate safely. We emphasise building the skills and knowledge that focus on safety awareness to reduce incidents from happening in the first place.

As an extension of our safety training and emergency response services, we also provide safety and emergency management consulting services. The focus here is to support mining and heavy industry, both here in Australia and overseas, in the development, auditing and testing of safety, crisis and emergency management systems.

How many facilities do you run, consisting of how many personnel and volunteers?

Mines Rescue operates in the major coal mining regions of New South Wales, with six training centres located across Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, Lithgow, Mudgee, Gunnedah and the Illawarra. These are custom-built facilities that include training galleries designed to simulate surface, underground and industrial environments. 

In terms of station personnel, we have around 50 team members who have long-term practical experience in underground and surface operations and management, many of who are trained brigade members. 

Across the state, we have more than 450 volunteer Mines Rescue brigade members for underground mines and around 600 surface emergency responders for open-cut mines who are specially trained in emergency response and rescue techniques. 

Lachlan Grant is the Northern Regional Manager for Mines Rescue.

You’re currently the Northern Region Manager for Mines Rescue. What are some of the core duties of this role? 

The main focus of my role is to provide support to our mining operations and rescue stations across the Northern Region to ensure they have the personnel, resources and training to provide the optimum response in an emergency. 

I regularly interact with our mine managers in the region to focus on how we can best serve their needs, not only from an emergency perspective, but also how we can assist their operations to operate safely every day.

What sort of radius and population do you cover in the Northern Region?

The Northern Region includes the mining communities of Newcastle and the Hunter. There are currently 22 coal mines in the region.    

There are almost 22,500 workers directly employed in the production of coal across New South Wales and more than 13,000 of those are in the Northern Region. At some stage during their mining careers, almost every one of those workers will have visited one of Coal Services’ offices for services such as a medical or attending a safety training course.

How often would Mines Rescue be called to action?

Fortunately, today’s mining operations are centred on safe work practices so mine emergencies today are rare. 

We train around five per cent of the underground coal workforce to specifically prepare to respond in the event of an incident. Having these specially trained volunteer brigade members on-site, together with the other training and safety awareness that we provide, helps to prevent incidents from taking place in the first instance, but it also means being able to respond quickly should something happen.

In addition to this training, we provide consultative advice to industry and run simulated emergencies as to refine, audit and improve protocols in the event of an emergency. 

Are there famous/infamous events or tragedies in the extractive industry over the past 20 years in which Mines Rescue had an important role?

As I said, industry’s safety focus and shared commitment to prevention has seen our role evolve, but we are still actively involved when incidents happen. Our level of involvement varies depending on the incident. 

Without going into specifics, Mines Rescue has been involved with around 20 incidents since 2010. This has included providing assistance and advice at Beaconsfield, Tasmania and Pike River, New Zealand, to activating brigades to respond to a fire at Blakefield South, and other incidents such as Austar and Ravensworth.   

Do you co-ordinate closely with the Westpac Helicopter Service? 

Coal Services has been a proud sponsor of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service for more than a decade. We recognise how important their work is to our communities and it is closely aligned to our purpose, “to protect”. Our emergency management specialists and their rescue teams regularly participate in sessions designed for shared learning, as well as simulated mine emergencies with them and other key emergency response stakeholders.

What were the key messages you wanted to convey to the audience at the IQA conference?

No one ever walks into work or starts a shift expecting an emergency or other incident to happen that day. But those sites that put the time and effort into developing robust emergency systems, training their personnel, and regularly testing their systems, will be the best equipped to deal with the situation. 

It’s about maintaining vigilance and not becoming complacent about safety. 

What preparations/precautions do quarrying operations need to take to both prevent and adequately respond to traumas on their sites?

In the prevention space, developing a comprehensive safety management system should be the focus for any operation. This involves consultation with their workforce and engaging quality training providers, particularly when it comes to preparing people to undertake high-risk tasks such as working at heights and entering confined spaces.

The same applies for emergency preparedness. When preparing for an emergency, a number of different factors need to be considered. Some of these include:

Developing an emergency system in line with guidance provided through legislation and relevant codes of practice. 

Consulting with external emergency services. 

Training management teams in a recognised emergency structure that is familiar to external emergency services (we use the incident command and control system structure widely within our mining operations).

Identifying and training specific people in higher level skills (such as the certificate iii in emergency response and rescue) to be able to respond effectively in the first instance on shift.

Training all workers in the process for identifying and activating an emergency on site.

Regularly testing the emergency management system for the site so those who are likely to respond in all the various roles are familiar with what they need to do.

What can quarrying operations do to ensure that emergency services never have to rescue one of their employees?

No one can afford to be complacent about workplace safety. Safety training and emergency preparedness training are the most important things that any operator can do to help protect their people.

While ongoing safety training is critical, so is ensuring that there are effective health and safety systems in place. More than that, it’s about ensuring they are implemented and monitored regularly. 

What sort of training and education services do you provide quarries and mines? Can the training be offered in quarries?

Our training isn’t limited to the coal mining industry, as many of the skills we teach in our courses can be applied to quarries and other extractive industries. 

Our courses help people to get their job done safely each day; for example, risk management, working at heights and confined space. We prepare first responders by providing first aid and firefighting training and the Certificate III in Emergency Response and Rescue. Mines Rescue also assists management to gain control and effectively implement their emergency management plan through courses such as our Incident Command and Control System training and so on. 

Depending on the particular requirements of the employer, we can deliver training at our Mines Rescue stations or deliver training on-site at their premises. 

In what ways do your virtual reality theatres help improve emergency responses, particularly in surface mine environments?

Our trainers have decades of hands-on industry experience which complements the classroom theory and practical demonstrations. The use of virtual reality also enables us to immerse workers and emergency response personnel into real-life scenarios to help them better understand and react to risks in their environment. 

Because it’s done in a safe, simulated environment, there is absolutely no risk and no impact on productivity.

What sort of feedback have you had about the virtual reality theatres from your personnel, volunteers and visitors?

Our virtual reality technologies has come a long way since we first started using the technologies in 2007. Today, we use ocular headsets to immerse students into the virtual world which allows them more freedom to move around and interact with others in training.

Overall, the feedback we have received from students has been positive. Many say that it’s a perfect tool for new starters in the industry, that it helps to give a better understanding of the subject matter being taught. For many it’s also about the realism and the interactive nature where they feel like they are part of the scenario. 

Most of all, it’s fun and easy to use.• 

For more information about Mines Rescue and Coal Services, visit coalservices.com.au

An edited version of this article appears in the March issue of Quarry Magazine.

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