Underground mining is one of Australia's largest industries, with numerous shafts extended deep into local soil across most states and territories. Each year, these operations produce millions of tonnes of coal, as well as gold, nickel, copper and other valuable metals and minerals.

This burgeoning industry is expected to continue to grow throughout Australia, with a number of mines currently in development or awaiting approval. Recent projects that have supported the growth of the country's underground coal mining sector include a proposed mine near Gunnedah in NSW and an approved site in Queensland's Bowen Basin – expected to employ more than 2,000 workers during construction and 500 in operations.

Further to these projects, on May 21, NSW Premier Mike Baird officially opened the country's largest underground mine. The Cadia East Gold Mine, located in central western NSW, will create a potential 1,900 direct and indirect jobs while producing at least 700,000 ounces of gold each year at full production.

"Cadia East is a large, long life asset and a cornerstone of our Company's strategy.  It is one of the largest gold and copper deposits in the world, with 2.8 billion tonnes of ore estimated to contain 37 million ounces of gold and 7.5 million tonnes of copper," Mr Baird explained in a May media release.

"With an approved mine life of 21 years, Cadia East will deliver significant economic benefits to the local community, the workforce and suppliers, local, State and federal governments, and of course Newcrest's shareholders for the long term."

Located more than 1.2 kilometres under the surface, the Cadia East Gold Mine will create a challenging environment in which to work, with various risks to health and safety present each time a worker descends into the mine's depths. It is therefore crucial that employers operating within this industry understand their obligations regarding training, supervision and provision of personal protective equipment.

Understanding the risks in underground mines

With so many Australians working underground each day, it is crucial to ensure occupational health and safety (OHS) standards are being followed. Mining is one of the country's most dangerous industries, so any measures that can potentially reduce the number of accidents, injuries and death are important.

While any mining enterprise can be hazardous, working in an underground mine in particular can pose a vast range of serious risks to employees' health and safety, so following best practice procedures is key. This is because of the unique combination of confined spaces, heavy machinery and dangerous work duties.

While most workers are aware of the hazards present when working in confined spaces, there is one factor that may not be accounted for underground. When mining in enclosed shafts and underground sites, a range of vehicles and machinery may also be sharing the space – which makes traffic management an important OHS consideration.

Traffic hazards in mining

Traffic management training should be a significant concern for any mining employer, as many of the vehicles used in this industry are large, imposing and can cause serious damage when misused.

Furthermore, when machinery and vehicles are operating in the confined space of an underground mine, the restrictive nature of shafts and sites can mean pedestrians and vehicles are required to share pathways. This can lead to significant danger for both workers and drivers.

Ensuring your employees understand the importance of traffic control plans is an important consideration to protect OHS outcomes and national safety standards.

Failure to provide workers with the necessary training can lead to serious accidents, potentially resulting in injuries and even death. For instance, a recent report from the Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum found that close to half (49 per cent) of all underground mining fatalities in Western Australia involved workers who had been employed at the site for less than a year.

Additionally the study, which analysed WA mining fatalities between 2000 and 2012, revealed that vehicles were involved in a vast majority of these accidents. Incidents such as collisions, runaway vehicles and plunging over edges caused at least 19 deaths during the reviewed period.

Collisions between vehicles, and between workers and equipment, have been identified as a relatively prevalent hazard in underground mines. Potential consequences of these incidents include serious injury or fatality.

The probability of collisions is comparatively high in these environments due to the confined working space, restricted visibility and close interactions between employees and vehicles.

This shows that the most significant challenges faced by vehicle operators and pedestrians in underground mines are following safe paths, monitoring traffic and ensuring equipment is correctly used and maintained.

The prevention of these incidents requires an increased focus on OHS standards as well as significant investment in traffic management awareness and training. If all underground employees are given access to this training, it is more likely that each individual will be able to identify potential hazards and safely respond to risks.

Traffic management in underground mining

As with all traffic management plans, underground mining initiatives must first consider measures to ensure pedestrians and vehicles are separated from one another at all times. This could include creating independent roadways for machinery and workers.

However, in the already restricted space found in underground mining shafts, it is often impossible or unreasonable to create separate paths. When this is the case, other traffic management measures need to be put in place.

These practices should address the known hazards of traffic in underground mining environments, particularly the close interactions between pedestrians and vehicles and low visibility in shafts.

Visibility is a relatively simple issue to fix. With adequate lighting installed, drivers and employees should be able to easily identify when a pathway is occupied. Mirrors can also be used to help drivers and workers identify obstacles around corners or through obstructed views.

To promote safe driving within shafts, all pathways should be clearly marked, with potential dangers signposted with recognisable warning labels. For example, some mining shafts contain steep drop offs in which a vehicle can easily tumble. These holes and cliffs should be outfitted with barriers and high-visibility signage to ensure drivers are made aware of their presence.

Traffic safety in underground mining environments is paramount to ensure each employee who enters the mine can safely return home at the end of their workday. As such, strict rules and regulations should be put in place and followed carefully. 

Specific traffic management practices that can significantly boost OHS outcomes are communication and speed restrictions. By ensuring vehicle operators are in constant contact with pedestrians, supervisors and other drivers, accidental collisions can easily be avoided. Additionally, if a potential incident was discovered, speed restrictions will ensure that operators are able to safely manoeuvre away from collision, either by braking or turning their vehicle from impact.

With workers and equipment working in close quarters during much of underground mining operations, ensuring traffic safety standards is a vital concern for employers. If you are interested in boosting the safety of your business, get in touch with AlertForce for more information on nationally recognised traffic management and control courses.