Despite being one of the safest mining jurisdictions in the world, there is still much room for improvement in Ontario’s minerals extraction industry, according to the province’s long-awaited mining health, safety and prevention review.
The 66-page report was released on April 15, and with it comes a renewed effort from the Ministry of Labour to address the safety concerns faced by Ontario’s underground mining industry. Commissioned in late 2013 after a spate of deaths in the preceding years, the review examines current safety procedures and provides 18 recommendations that address six key issues including direct health and safety hazards, the impact of new technology and the capacity of industry risk assessment practices.
According to George Gritziotis, Ontario’s chief prevention officer and head of the review board, the recommendations are meant to be easy to understand, work with and, most importantly, implement.
Among other issues, Gritziotis highlighted the immediate need to address hazards that pose the greatest direct threat to the health and safety of miners working underground. This includes solving one of the most challenging and dangerous puzzles: managing excess water that can result in unexpected runs of material in ore and waste passages and unworkable wet conditions. According to the report, fatal injuries related to water management hazards in underground mines have not declined over the past 25 years. This stands in startling contrast to the steadily declining critical injury rates in the province.
To deal with this, the report recommends mandatory programs at mines to formally address their water issues. The suggestions include minimizing the amount of water entering the mine in the first place by sealing exploration diamond drill holes and grouting fragmented rock masses that can become conduits for water transmission. It also proposes enhancing the capacity to remove water once it has entered the mine by ensuring proper sump-and-drain hole designs and pumping systems. At the design stage, steps should be taken to ensure mine water drains away from ore and waste chutes, and that programs are in place to seal holes that intersect these passes. Lastly, employers can implement mandatory inspection programs, such as camera systems where possible, and position control panels for pass control gates in areas that are safely accessible as an added insurance.
Other safety threats identified in the review include dealing with airborne hazards like silica and diesel particulate matter, risks from seismicity and rockbursts, possibility of vehicle and equipment collisions, and worker fatigue.
Another area of concern, noted Gritziotis, is the existing Internal Responsibility System (IRS), which has failed to consistently identify risks and reduce occupational hazards since it was established in 1976. Developed by James Ham, the IRS requires every individual in all workplaces to contribute to the minimization of safety risks as an essential part of their job by reporting any concerns as they arise. The review recommends several changes to boost the system’s success including improved reporting outlets that involve workers more, better communication within the industry about emerging risks and increased enforcement in the form of effective internal and external audits.
“If we could get everyone working underground to contribute to the IRS and help identify and correct workplace hazards, then it would go a long way to reducing accidents,” said Gritziotis. “It would be more than just a surface solution.”
In good hands
The 16-month comprehensive review process involved working with an advisory group of mining stakeholders to identify key issues, meeting with six working groups of labour and employer representatives to address each of these issues, consulting a resource group of subject matter experts to provide information for the working groups, hosting public consultation sessions, and having Gritziotis and members of his advisory group visit a number of mine sites.
“It really was a great collaborative process between all the major stakeholders in the industry,” said Myles Sullivan, northeastern Ontario area coordinator for the United Steelworkers. “Although we might not have agreed at all times and the process might’ve taken a little bit longer than we wanted, the end result is of very good quality and addresses exactly what needs to done.”
The sentiment is one that is shared among all parties. “At the end of the day, we all had one goal in common, and that was to make underground mines safer places,” said Angie Robson, spokesperson for Vale. “I believe the rapport that we developed and the results demonstrate everyone’s commitment to that goal. Now, the impetus is on employers and organizations to put those recommendations into effect.”
Vale has already started to implement some of the recommendations, such as the mandatory use of high visibility clothing above and below ground.
Gritziotis met with the advisory group in May to prioritize the recommendations and send a proposal to the Mining Legislative Review Committee in hopes of turning the recommendations into legislation. That committee will also consider another 24 recommendations, many overlapping with the review, from the inquest into the deaths of Jason Chernier and Jordan Fram at Vale’s Stobie mine in 2011 that wrapped up in mid-May. In a process that could take up to 12 months, the committee will pass advice to the minister of labour after reaching a consensus on required changes.
A full list of the review’s recommendations
Health and safety issues
- The Ministry of Labour (MOL) to undertake a mining sector risk assessment every three years.
- Require employers to conduct risk assessments with health representatives, as often as necessary to ensure effective programs.
- MOL to focus its grants and research on topics that address the identified priority hazards of ground control, worker fatigue, occupational disease, water management and mobile equipment, and to act on findings where appropriate.
- The Mining Legislative Review Committee to prioritize identified hazards in risk assessments in its work.
- Require employers to address the priority hazards.
- Review existing occupational exposure limits for key airborne and chemical hazardous substances in underground mines.
The impact of new technology and management of change
- Require mine operators to establish and implement a written management of change procedure, and to include workers and health and safety representatives in the process.
Emergency response and mine rescue
- Require mining companies to establish emergency response plans for exploration sites, new mines, surface mines and mining plants by conducting risk assessments.
- Workplace Safety North to establish guidelines for fitness of crew members, critical incident stress management and acclimatization of emergency responders.
- Develop recommendations regarding responsibilities of mine rescue crew members and mine owners/employers in mine rescue operations in conjunction with stakeholders.
Training, skills and labour supply issues
- Enhance supervisor and management training by involving the Mining Tripartite Committee with the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
- Discuss, evaluate and improve the quality of the content and delivery of NORCAT’s Common Core basic skills training in the underground mining sector.
Capacity of the occupational health and safety system
- The province to ensure a safety system that has resources to address mining hazards by hiring more engineers and increasing partners’ technical capacity related to mechanical issues.
- Review policies and procedures that apply to mining inspectors related to unannounced field visits, reprisals, repeat orders, the training of inspectors, and provision of information to workplace parties.
- Review the system’s ability to meet the specific needs of the mining sector, such as those related to providing services to remote communities, training in small numbers and aligning training with the identified priority hazards.
- MOL to build better connection with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Internal Responsibility System (IRS)
- The Ontario Mining Association to develop an IRS best practice guideline as an industry benchmark.
- Share data on emerging injury and illness trends to trigger preventative actions from workplace parties.
The full review can be found online at: http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/pubs/miningfinal/index.php