What does it mean and what are the implications for the industry in Australia?
On 1 November 2018, the Queensland Parliament passed new legislation establishing the statutory position of ventilation officer (VO) in Queensland underground metalliferous mines (the position has in fact been re-established; it was discontinued in 1999). There were also significant changes regarding ventilation officers in coal mines, but this article specifically addresses metalliferous mines.
The Minister’s Explanatory Speech states the following with respect to metalliferous mines:
‘There will be greater transparency and accountability in the training and competency of ventilation officers… There will also be statutory competency requirements for ventilation officers in underground metals mines. Other reforms will enable the development of a scheme of continuing professional education for holders of certificates of competency, helping to ensure the competency standards of those in safety-critical roles at mines over time.’ (Lynham, 2018)
The explanatory notes accompanying the new legislation state:
‘To maintain high safety standards, persons appointed to ventilation officer positions must be sufficiently skilled. Compliance activities have highlighted ongoing deficiencies in the competency and training of ventilation officers. The proposed amendment will ensure there are people with sufficient experience, expertise, status and understanding of statutory obligations working at the operational level as ventilation officers, in the complex and hazardous mining process…’ (Anon, 2018c)
Key elements of this new legislation (sections 54A and 54B) include:
- All mines ‘where more than 20 persons work underground’ must have a ventilation officer who has competencies meeting the requirements of the Queensland Mining Safety Health Advisory Committee (MSHAC), itself a tripartite statutory body established under the Act.
- The ventilation officer is responsible for ‘(a) the implementation of the (ventilation) system; and (b) the establishment of effective ventilation for the mine’. This places a substantial and personal responsibility on the appointed VO. In some coal mines in Queensland and NSW, there have been difficulties in recent years filling the position of VO due to the high personal responsibility of the position or difficulties in the management structure on the mine site with regards to statutory and non-statutory positions (eg a VO reporting to a Technical Services Manager who may not have sufficient understanding of mine ventilation).
- Where the ventilation officer is ‘absent from duty’ for more than 14 days, another ventilation officer meeting the same recognised competency standards must be appointed in their place. Note that the best solution for this is to have a second person in the mine who also has the statutory qualification.
- Where the ventilation officer is absent for less than 14 days, the underground mine manager may assume the VO position but only if they can ‘…effectively carry out the duties and responsibilities of both the underground mine manager and the ventilation officer.’
- A ventilation officer cannot be appointed as ventilation officer at more than one mine without the prior approval of the Chief Inspector.
- There is a three-year transition period for mines to comply with these new requirements.
These are quite major changes to the parliament’s view of the importance of mine ventilation (Anon, 2018a). So what are the drivers behind these new changes?
The reality is that there are growing concerns about the long-term health impacts of being an underground worker in terms of airborne contaminants. There are a range of factors feeding into these concerns, some of which include:
- Diesel particulate matter (DPM) has been classified as a ‘known human carcinogen’, a particular concern given the heavy dependence on diesel machines in underground metalliferous mining (IARC, 2012).
- As the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) work was based in large part on studies where workers were exposed to older engine technologies and higher sulphur fuels, old and new concerns have been expressed about the toxicity of DPM ‘nanoparticles’, which form a higher fraction of DPM in new engine technologies (Torlach, 2001; Bugarski and Timko, 2007; Jones, 2015).
- The American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) lowered its threshold limit values (TLVs) for nitrogen dioxide in 2011 and most mines in Canada, for example, now operate to a time-weighted average (TWA) for NO2 of 0.2 ppm, compared to the continuing limit of 3 ppm in Australia (Drager, 2015).
- In coal mines in Australia, coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP) has re-emerged (CWP Select Committee, 2017; Kirkwood, 2017). Similar concerns have been raised in the USA (Blackley et al, 2018). The Queensland CWP Select Committee report states:
‘In September 2015, Queensland’s Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health reported the diagnosis of “the first case of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis in a Queensland coal miner in 30 years”. The re-identification of this entirely preventable disease – thought incorrectly to have effectively been eradicated in Australia – shocked and dismayed all involved in the coal industry. As at 11 September 2017, there were a total of 52 confirmed cases of mine dust lung diseases among current and former Queensland mine workers, at least 22 of which involve coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. The remaining cases variously include diagnoses of asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), silicosis, or co-occurring (mixed) mine dust lung disease. Sadly, these numbers will no doubt increase.’
- Concerns about silicosis have been raised recently with respect to civil tunnelling projects in Queensland (Anon, 2017) and also regarding manufactured stone (Bavas and Silva, 2018).
- The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has recently doubled its estimate of risk from exposure to radon (Anon, 2018b).
- Heat stress continues to be a significant issue in most Australian underground mines.
It’s important to understand the context of these (mostly) long-latency occupational diseases. A young person entering the general workforce today can expect a longer lifespan than a worker leaving the workforce today. With a longer life expectancy, there is an increasing number of years that miners will spend either in their workplace (ie increases in retirement age) or in retirement itself, which means an increasing period in which ventilation-related diseases may begin to have impacts. That reality, when combined with the probable lowering of at least some of the occupational limits for airborne contaminants, means it is incumbent on all stakeholders in the industry to be doing better than merely meeting the current occupational limits – especially for those contaminants that are currently subject to review.
In addition, Queensland legislation specifically requires risk (including risk from airborne contaminants) to not only be ‘within acceptable limits’ but also, and very importantly, to be ‘as low as reasonably achievable’ (ALARA) (defined in section 26 of the Mining and Quarrying Safety and Health Act 1999). It is not sufficient for the level of risk to be merely ‘acceptable’. And it is clear from the examples above in which allowable limits have reduced over time, and continue to be reduced, that what is acceptable today will in many cases not be acceptable at some point in the future, emphasising the importance of designing for ‘as low as reasonably achievable’.
And at least in this author’s view, this failure to understand and apply the ALARA principle is a key problem in current underground ventilation design and operating practices.
These legislative changes come on top of major upgrades to legislation introduced in the past four years in South Australia and NSW with respect to the introduction of Ventilation Control Plans, as well as mandatory modelling of mine ventilation circuit changes before they occur. Western Australia is also well into a comprehensive review process for a new Code of Practice for underground mine ventilation.
The Introductory Comments to the Queensland legislation also highlight four significant problems with the existing training of ventilation officers in Queensland and, more generally, in Australia:
- The legislative intent is to improve the ‘…experience, expertise, status and understanding of statutory obligations’. It is interesting that the legislative comments specifically refer to the status of ventilation officers. An objective of the legislation is that the input and concerns of site ventilation officers should be heard more clearly by senior management on site and in their corporate offices.
- Mine ventilation training courses have typically been about one week in duration or around 35-40 contact hours. This seems alarmingly low for such a consequential piece of training – less time than it would take to attend a dog training course or take a cooking class! I believe one reason for the relatively short course length has been largely driven by industry who have not wanted to release site staff for a longer period or pay for the additional training costs. For this reason, MSHAC has stipulated that the only competencies that will be recognised are those granted by Simtars or the University of NSW. Both these courses take considerably longer and are considerably more expensive than a one-week course. Merely completing an undergraduate mining engineering degree will not be sufficient to practice as a VO in Queensland. Future VO training will have a very strong practical, ‘skills development’ focus and candidates must already have two years of experience working in a metalliferous mine before commencing the course.
- Unlike almost any other professional registration system in modern Australia (including both the Queensland Registered Professional Engineer and the AusIMM’s Chartered Professional programs), there have been no requirements for ‘continuing professional development’ for statutory positions including ventilation officers. The specifics of this is still to be addressed but it will be happening.
- Most ventilation courses do not provide training in ventilation modelling, noting that in Australia, competency in ventilation modelling means competency in using Ventsim software. It is simply not possible to produce a competent ventilation officer if they cannot reliably model primary and secondary ventilations systems, assess the ramifications of possible circuit changes before they happen, and specify required fan duties, cooling requirements, etc. But competency must be demonstrated, which means Ventsim competency will need to be assessed to an agreed standard.
The implications of these legislation changes are likely to spread more widely than just Queensland. Many mining companies have operations in more than one state and these new VO requirements and competencies in Queensland will meet or exceed the competency requirements in all states. Plus the general trend is for mines to adopt the most stringent ‘good practice’ operating standards and practices and competencies from around Australia.
There will be some in the industry who see these changes as another regulatory burden, only adding to the cost of running an underground mine, and thereby reducing the competitiveness of Australian underground mines. However, a more sensible and progressive view is that good ventilation design not only improves safety and health outcomes and lifts morale for underground workers, but can also optimise (and frequently reduce) capital and operating costs, reduce power requirements, and reduce operational problems and production disruptions. Competent, well-supported ventilation officers are an asset – not a liability – to every underground mine. A lift in the standards required for the role of VO is also likely to lead to new career path progression opportunities for mine ventilation professionals. As an industry and a profession, we should be ensuring we leverage off these changes to consolidate the legislators’ intended step-change improvement in underground working conditions.
Disclosure: Dr Rick Brake is assisting Simtars with delivering a mine ventilation course to meet the requirements of this new statutory position.
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