The best course of action a person should take during a fire is to evacuate the area. But in an underground mine, it’s not always that simple. Miners often work hundreds of feet underground, which can make exiting the area in the event of a fire or emergency a complicated process.
Underground miners wait in a refuge chamber during a safety drill at Newmont’s Waihi mine.
Chuck Burns, who for three years was the Health and Safety Manager at Newmont’s Subika underground mine in Ghana, explains that when evacuation isn’t an immediate option, there is an alternative – a mine refuge chamber.
“Emergency preparedness and response is an integral part of Newmont’s safety management systems,” says Burns. “In an underground environment, it is paramount that our emergency plans address the hazards associated with fires and other incidents that can result in irrespirable atmospheres, or situations in which miners can’t breathe without the assistance of a breathing apparatus. Refuge chambers are central to our underground emergency preparedness plans.”
Refuge chambers are self-contained underground capsules made of reinforced steel that look very much like a large shipping container. Because refuge chambers are enclosed and air-tight, they provide miners with safe shelter from fires, some flooding and lethal gases. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Labor developed regulations that require mining companies to install refuge alternatives in all U.S. underground mines. While refuge chambers were already required and being utilized in Australia, Newmont installed them at our U.S. operations, as well as at our underground operations in Africa and New Zealand.
Refuge chambers are central to Newmont’s underground emergency preparedness plans.
Most country regulations and standards require these portable structures to be strategically positioned no more than a 30-minute walk or 820 yards (750 meters) away from where miners are working. Inside, the chambers are well stocked, providing miners with enough water and oxygen for a minimum of 36 hours. They’re also hardwired for electrical power, have a backup battery, lavatory and phone that connects directly with emergency response teams.
To alert miners that they either need to evacuate or seek shelter in a refuge chamber, both high- and low-tech procedures may be used. While state-of-the-art technology that supports the use of two-way radios or the transmission of radio signals over optical fibers can be effective, miners are often working in locations throughout the mine where signals are difficult to receive. During these situations, stench gas or eucalyptus may be used as part of Newmont’s warning system. When released into the mine, these strong-smelling organic gases alert miners that there is an emergency, and that they should either get out of the mine or into a refuge chamber.
Once miners seek refuge in a chamber, they sit and wait until rescue crews arrive to escort them out of the mine or until they are given the “all clear” by Newmont’s Emergency Response team. They will not evacuate without this confirmation because of potential hazards in the mine that may not be immediately obvious to them.
“As in most emergency situations where you find yourself unable to get out of an area, it is always best to stay put and wait for trained personnel to help you safely evacuate the area,” says Randy Squires, Senior Manager, Health and Safety, North America.
At Newmont, knowing how to respond in an emergency is second nature for miners, but only after frequent training.
“Drills and awareness training on refuge chambers are key components of our emergency preparedness,” explains Burns. “As a result of this training, our miners know how to evacuate and where to evacuate depending on the emergency and where they are working in the mine.”
Since installing refuge chambers, Newmont has used them as a precautionary safety measure when ground control hazards (shifting rocks) are present, but only once during an emergency. That event occurred in 2012, when an early-morning fire ignited at Newmont Waihi Gold’s Trio underground mine in New Zealand and forced miners to retreat to three refuge chambers. By mid-day all 28 miners had been escorted safely to the surface by rescue crews.
At Newmont, our safety goal is zero harm, and that requires having systems and behaviors in place to ensure a safe work environment. Refuge chambers, emergency warning systems and mine rescue teams are a small but important part of our commitment to making sure that our people return to their families and loved ones at the end of their shift just as healthy as they were when they arrived for work that day.