Hard trials vital for mine safety
Hard trials 'vital for mine safety'

Department of Mines and Petroleum safety boss Simon Ridge once sent a mine rescue team crawling through a leech-infested water drain in the name of realism.

It was only one of the many mine rescue competitions he has judged, but Mr Ridge said it was enough to earn him a reputation as a "bit of a bastard" - particularly afterwards, as competitors were forced to burn off leeches.

But in part, that sums up Mr Ridge's attitude. The competitions are fun, he says, but the skills they teach may one day be life or death for a trapped mine worker.

"These competitions actually put them under pressure - it's hard yakka. It really tests their skills out, and their ability to do things on a time line. But the teams are there to react to mining events, and these things hone their skills," Mr Ridge said.

As the DMP's resources safety executive director, the buck stops with Mr Ridge on all of WA's resource projects. With more than 20 years on the job, Mr Ridge said he had seen vast improvement in safety standards in WA, but the work was never done.

"I've investigated something like 22 fatal accidents in my time, and I can tell you that not one person involved with any of them thought it was going to happen and I firmly believe that not one person said: 'Oh, someone could get killed but I'll take the risk'," Mr Ridge said.

"Nobody does that - the realty is that we are human beings, and if we are involved in an operation for any length of time we have a tendency to rationalise the risk, to let our guard down," he said. "And one of our jobs is to make sure people maintain that vigilance."

In the past 10 years the lost time injury frequency rate in the mining industry has dropped 45 per cent, and the fatal injury frequency rate is down 81 per cent. WA has not seen a fatality on a mining site in more than 15 months.

Part of the key to success is not just acting as a "traffic warden" - issuing fines or corrective notices for minor defaults can be counter- productive, according to Mr Ridge.

"I firmly believe we can only get the next step improvement if we work together," he said.

"If you act just as a policeman, you wind up with people ducking for cover or hiding things and not willing to talk to you - you will come on site and there won't be an awful lot going on, because the word has got around that you are there and they pull people away from doing anything real so you don't see anything.

"And then you really don't achieve anything. So we have to work together - and that's the unions, the industry bodies, the individual mine manager, inspectors and the workplace safety representatives. And the reality is we all want the same thing."

One of his major recent tasks was to lead a transformation in the way the DMP's safety unit was funded and operated. In 2010 the State Government launched the Reform and Development at Resources Safety (RADARS) project - moving to industry funding of the safety division, and a major shift in the way the department carried out its work.

The additional funding, through a levy on any resource operation (including exploration projects) that run more than 5000 person hours in a quarter, has allowed the DMP to compete with the wages offered by industry.

New safety inspectors have joined the DMP since RADARS began, with more still to be appointed, and Mr Ridge said the changes had attracted old mining hands to the department.

"We have recruited engineers, occupational health and safety specialists, people with a high level of artisanal involvement in the mining industry - whether that's electrical, mechanical or operational - so it is across the board from highly qualified engineers, highly qualified specialists, and people that have been on the tools and have risen through the ranks," he said.

Technical expertise wasn't enough, however. Mr Ridge says his safety inspectors needed to know how to walk a fine line between working with industry to improve standards, but take firmer action when it was needed.

"We put people through a six-month training course, so they are fully equipped to make the change from an industry environment to a regulator," he said.

"Because it's not an easy job. You have to have a slightly different outlook on things - you are not there to win friends and influence people - you are there to verify and implement the law."

Safety first 15 The number of months that have passed since there was a fatality on a West Australian mine site.

The West Australian

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