Emergency response and mine rescue
New mining technologies and processes combined with the trend to deeper, expanded and more remote mines create challenges for emergency response and mine rescue systems. A key question is whether the current emergency preparedness and response system is adequate in light of increasing risks.
What We Heard
The mining sector takes great pride in Ontario’s mine rescue system, and is generally satisfied with the current way it is set up and operates. However, the Review heard from a number of people that it is important to evaluate the ability of the current mine rescue system to respond to hazards created by new technologies and mining methods and to launch effective rescue operations as mines in Ontario get deeper and distances from the shaft increase.
The Review gathered information from a variety of sources including Coroner’s jury inquest recommendations, the Ham, Burkett and Stevenson Commissions/Inquiries, scans of regulatory requirements in other jurisdictions, public consultations and consultations with other jurisdictions. The Review held consultations with organized labour, management, the Ontario Mine Rescue Technical Advisory Committee and the Ontario Mine Rescue organizational staff. The Review compared Ontario’s requirements, standards and regulations for emergency preparedness and response with those of other jurisdictions. The Review also heard that, in recognition of the unique nature of emergency management and mine rescue, the need for separate and specific risk assessment requirements should be considered. A separate risk assessment requirement for emergencies and mine rescue would be in line with the practices of many other provinces.
Current Challenges to Emergency Preparedness and Mine Rescue
Rescue work is some of the most labour-intensive and dangerous in the mining sector and is often done in conditions that are “immediately dangerous to life or health”. As mines get deeper and move further from the shaft or when companies explore new sites and mines, they create greater safety risks for emergency responders, which must be taken into account in emergency planning.
As mines expand and get deeper, it becomes more challenging to get mine rescue responders to the location of the emergency quickly. Emergency plans must consider this. Specially designed and constructed team transport vehicles can be provided to mine rescue teams so they are able to get to the site of the emergency faster.
As depth increases, the environment becomes hotter and more humid due to increasing rock temperature. High temperatures and humidity can affect mine rescue team performance. Responders may need to work for shorter periods of time so planning has to take into account the potential need for shorter shifts.
Rescue teams rely on breathing apparatus and researchers/manufacturers recommend that four hours is the longest a responder should be allowed to remain under oxygen. Best practice by mine rescue organizations is to limit responders to two hours.
The establishment of underground mine rescue substations would create complexities associated with the storage, care and maintenance of breathing apparatus. This work must be conducted in a clean, air-conditioned and dust-free environment, which may be difficult to create underground. Underground mine rescue stations would also mean that companies would have to purchase additional mine rescue equipment. Emergency plans should consider the use of self-rescuers (i.e. individual breathing devices carried by miners) in addition to the strategic use and location of permanent and portable refuge stations.
When companies are involved in advanced exploration, there can be serious health and safety issues yet the companies are not currently required to have an emergency response plan for those sites – despite the fact that workers could encounter typical underground mining risks, including oxygen deficiency, mine gasses, falls of ground and inrush of water. The complexity of an emergency response plan for an exploration site will depend on a number of factors including geographic location of the mine/project, number of workers at the site, proximity to municipal emergency response organizations, proximity to neighbouring operations that have response capability and site-specific hazards. It is important that companies have emergency response plans that:
- address typical underground risks
- are based on a risk assessment, evaluated by the joint health and safety committee where applicable, tested regularly and adjusted to address new and emerging hazards
- are reviewed and updated at least annually by the owner/employer and made available for review by Ministry of Labour inspectors.
Unlike other jurisdictions, Ontario does not currently require surface mines and mining plants to conduct regular formal risk assessments or establish, maintain and evaluate an emergency plan. Surface mines and mining plants often rely on municipalities to assist with response to an emergency situation. However, municipal fire services and emergency medical services (EMS) have limitations and need to be consulted before being imbedded as standard procedures within a site’s emergency response plan. To support mine and mining plant operators, it is essential for the mining sector to develop a guideline of critical elements (components) of a written emergency plan with clearly defined roles and responsibilities during an emergency. These plans need to be reviewed, audited and tested regularly to ensure compliance. Adjustments need to be made when changes within the workplace may affect response capability.
Fitness and Competence of Volunteer Emergency Responders
Mine rescues in Ontario are conducted by volunteer emergency responders who require a high level of fitness, support and knowledge.
Rescuers must be capable of performing arduous work under extreme conditions. Ontario Mine Rescue requires responders to have annual physical examinations and clinical testing to assess their fitness. However, the comprehensiveness of the exam may vary depending on the examining physician, who may not be aware of the intensity of work performed by these individuals.
To ensure responders are physically fit enough, some jurisdictions employ/use certain medical professionals who are responsible for overseeing medical examinations and clinical tests and who examine and release volunteers after a mission under oxygen. Many jurisdictions have stringent mine rescue fitness standards. For example, mine rescue organizations in the United Kingdom, German, Poland and the Czech Republic conduct monthly fitness testing. To ensure responders are fit, Ontario could consider specifying fitness requirements.
Heat and humidity are significant hazards to rescue responders. Arduous work significantly increases risk of heat-related illnesses, even at moderate ambient temperatures. Rescuers responding to emergencies under hot conditions must be acclimatized to be able to function effectively. Failure to do so can be a matter of life and death. For example, in 1998, six Polish rescuers lost their lives while responding to a routine situation and two American rescuers died of heat exhaustion at the Goldstrike decline in 2002. Since that time, all mine rescue organisations have adopted heat stress guidelines that limit underground mine rescue missions under heated conditions. Although Ontario Mine Rescue has adopted criteria for limiting the time (mission duration), volunteers are still exposed to high temperatures and humidity. This strategy alone may not be enough to ensure responders are acclimatized to their particular operation.
Critical Incident Stress
Responders may be involved in rescue and/or recovery operations. For responders involved in recovery operations, finding bodies is distressing. Volunteers should have immediate access to Critical Incident Stress management teams following an incident. Stress-related anxiety is normal but, if the emotions are not dealt with in a healthy effective fashion, they can lead to emotional turmoil and even harmful behaviour. Part of the risk assessment process should include identifying individuals who may be involved in recovery operations and establishing a plan to provide education, support and counselling.
Impact of New Technology
Technology affects how rescue teams respond to emergencies. Just as there are new technologies for mining, there are new technologies for mine rescue. The Technical Advisory Committee of Ontario Mine Rescue is responsible for investigating any new technology and making recommendations about which technologies should be adopted to improve the safety of members of rescue teams. Processes are in place to ensure that responders are trained in the use of any new technology.
All Ontario mine rescue team members are required to have a minimum of standard first aid to assist with injured workers. Many have advanced first aid training.
Training Program/Skills Competency
Ontario Mine Rescue has several standardized competency-based mine rescue training programs including:
- Introductory Program
- Refresher (Regular) Training
- Advanced Mine Rescue Certification
- Management Program
- Technician Program
- Technician Refresher Training
- Supervisory Program
All Ontario Mine Rescue training programs come with leader guides and participant manuals and, where appropriate, competency checklists that are used to evaluate performance. The organization also maintains a comprehensive training database which tracks training received, competencies, oxygen time, experience in other jurisdictions and first aid certifications.
Training is normally delivered between September and May of each year. The current training schedule, which appears to be based on district and provincial mine rescue competitions (see below) rather than the needs of mine operators or responders, could result in long periods of time between regular and refresher training. The mine rescue training program would benefit from being evaluated to assess how best to deliver the knowledge components of the program as well as responders’ ability to maintain competency over time. Findings could be used to determine how often responders need refresher training.
Role of Mine Rescue Competitions
Ontario’s mine rescue competition is designed to simulate a complete incident response with numerous integrated tasks. A competition includes team preparation and team briefing, followed by solving a complex incident that will typically include triage, use of special equipment and firefighting. Although this exercise results in a very complete and thorough evaluation of a team’s ability to work through these tasks, it is not necessarily representative of what happens in an actual emergency situation.
In their competitions, most other jurisdictions establish separate tasks that are classified into knowledge, skill and endurance categories. Teams are required to complete several tasks and are evaluated against standards. A competition broken down into separate tasks would more accurately assess the competency of Ontario’s mine rescue workers in real life situations.
- 3.1 The Ministry of Labour to require mining companies to conduct risk assessments to establish Emergency Response Plans for exploration sites, new mines, surface mines and mining plants.
- 3.2 Workplace Safety North to revise the Mine Rescue Handbook to include guidelines for fitness of crew members, critical incident stress management and acclimatization of emergency responders.
- 3.3 The Ministry of Labour to work with stakeholders to develop proposed recommendations regarding the responsibilities of mine rescue crew members and mine owners/employers, with respect to mine rescue operations.