The coal industry and safety

Coal mining [photo] South Africa's coal deposits are relatively shallow with thick seams compared to coal deposits in other countries, making it amenable to fairly shallow underground and opencast mining operations.

While South African mining in general is still a largely labour-intensive process, the coal mining industry is technologically advanced and less labour intensive. Central to the coal mining industry's approach to improving safety is the removal of miners from working-face dangers and potential health hazards.

The industry is guided by extensive health and safety legislation and regulations when dealing with safety.

Rigorous safety procedures, health and safety standards and employee education and training programmes have resulted in significant improvements in safety performance in both underground and opencast coal mining.

Safety risks

Safety risks differ from company to company, and indeed, from operation to operation.

The most significant safety challenges relate to:

Falls of ground

Mining activities impose abnormal stress on the surrounding rock. The term 'fall of ground' is used to classify those accidents that relate to unexpected movement of the rock mass and the uncontrolled release of debris and rock, as a result of gravity and/or pressure and strain burst.

Improvements in rock engineering techniques, seismic monitoring and improved roof support using bolting and netting have minimised risk and significantly reduced the incidence of falls of ground in working areas.

Explosions as a result of methane or particulates

Methane gas is frequently present in the coal seam and surrounding rock, and presents a risk of uncontrolled ignition. The presence of dust particulates add to the risk of explosion. Techniques have been developed to monitor and manage the presence of methane. For example, large fans with carefully planned ventilation flows ensure adequate dilution of methane, while dust prevention measures limit the levels of coal dust particulates in the air. In extreme situations, methane inhalation may result in asphyxiation. Underground methane levels are monitored continuously using detection monitors (methanometers) which detect tiny parts per million of methane, and immediately transmit methane concentration readings, providing warnings to mineworkers and management to take the necessary actions.

Safety performance

South African coal mines continue to be among the safest mines in the world.

Over the past two decades, the coal mining industry has demonstrated a continued improvement in its safety performance. The number of fatalities in the South African coal industry decreased by 89% since 1933, while the number of serious injuries decreased by 31% over the same time period.

Regrettably, in 2017 the South African coal industry saw a regression in terms of safety performance, with 10 fatalities reported.

Number of fatalities in SA coal industry [graph]
Source: Department of Mineral Resources

The number of serious injuries reported by the coal industry also decreased to 183 injuries during 2016, compared to 206 in 2015, which is an improvement of 21%.

Number of injuries in SA coal industry [graph]
Source: Department of Mineral Resources/Minerals Council South Africa

In terms of fatality frequency rates, the coal industry compares favourably with international benchmarks. In 2015, the South African coal sector performed better than the US coal sector.

Fatality frequency rate per million hours worked in SA coal industry [graph]
Source: Department of Mineral Resources/Minerals Council South Africa

Number of injuries in SA coal industry [graph]

South African coal mining industry sponsors advanced drilling equipment

Following the disaster at Coalbrook Colliery in 1960, where rescuers were unable to reach working areas, the coal mining members of the Minerals Council South Africa (then the Chamber of Mines) acquired a Wirth L10 drill and ancillary equipment worth R600,000 to assist with rescue operations at South African underground collieries. The Chamber consulted drilling experts to identify the best available equipment at the time.

In 2014, South African coal mining houses funded the purchase of new rescue drilling equipment worth R66 million. The Schramm T130XD drill and the Schramm T685WS drill with ancillary equipment were selected, due to their safety standards and ease of transportation, by a task team represented by the Minerals Council South Africa, Mines Rescue Services and the Colliery Training College.

While the drill has not been used in a coal mining accident, it has been used on a number of occasions, with the blessing of the coal mining industry, most recently in trying to reach survivors at Lily Mine.

Safety in the South African coal industry over the years

Coal mining disasters and their outcomes

The Coalbrook Colliery disaster in 1960 was one of the worst mining accidents to have occurred in South Africa. A total of 435 men died when a large section of a wall caved in. Investigations led by local and international experts revealed that the failure of one support pillar set off a disastrous progressive and unstoppable collapse of 900 other pillars that were designed to support the mine's working areas.

As a direct result of this incident, in 1963, the then Chamber of Mines established the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation (COMRO), which together with the Coal Mines Research Controlling Council, made great strides in safety and research about pillar support in mines. Their findings revolutionised safety in mining, not just in coal mining, but more especially in South Africa's deep-level gold mines. In 1990, COMRO and its research programmes were taken over by the CSIR when it set up its Mining Innovation division.

An explosion in 1993 at Sasol Limited's Middelbult Colliery resulted in the death of 53 workers. An inquest into the explosion found that coal dust was the primary fuel for an underground mine explosion. The Leon Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry, appointed on 28 May 1993 and which led the way to the new Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) as well as the Mining Regulation Advisory Committee (MRAC), identified explosions caused by coal dust as one of the key areas of concern in mine safety and health. The MRAC appointed a tripartite task team to advice on measures to be taken in mitigating the risk of coal mine ignitions. The task team found inadequacies in the regulatory requirements relating to the prevention of coal dust explosions. The task team was consequently further tasked with compiling guidelines for an appropriate code of practice.

Technological impact on safety

Following the Kinross mine disaster in 1986, the mining industry introduced mandatory life sustaining refuge chambers and self-contained self-rescuers.

Through technological advancements such as these, coal mining has seen an increase in safety standards for employees. Coal mining has adapted leading support technologies over the years to mitigate falls of ground fatalities and injuries by enhancing pillar support infrastructure. Mine planners are able to efficiently map mines, monitor coal seams, and locate potential problems before they pose a danger to mine workers.

There have been vast improvements in communication devices that are able to stay active during power outages, fan stoppages or gas accumulations. It is imperative that workers are able to communicate with each other at all times especially during life-threatening situations.