Mining is a fascinating industry. There is something visceral about it – mother earth being uncovered in all her mineral beauty for us to harness – for many in the industry this raw appeal is like no other: it’s about rocks, minerals, their beauty and, of course, their value.
But mining is also about advanced chemical processing of minerals – chemical processes that are critical if a mineral’s value is to be realised and that demand a high level of process safety expertise in their operation. Here we briefly explore some of the challenges faced by the mining industry at becoming good operators of these chemical processes and at adopting leading risk management practices from the chemical industry.
Mining Hazards From Upstream to Downstream
Core mining operations come with significant operational safety hazards, well known and understood by the industry, such as wall stability and falls of ground, heavy transportation by rail and haul truck, fire and explosion in underground mines and failures of tailings dams, amongst others. All of these have the potential to impact catastrophically upon a mining operation, both operationally, through injuries, fatalities, and damage to infrastructure and reputations.
These core mining hazards take their rightful place at the forefront of mining risk management, with the leading mining companies typically having a rich depth of experience in these areas, applying and advancing leading practice to reduce risk to acceptable levels, and with a subsequent high level of awareness and sensitivity to these issues amongst the workforce.
If we take the oil and gas analogy, these risks are associated with the ‘Upstream’ side of the mining operations. On the ‘Downstream’ side the risk profile of a mine operation changes substantially.
Enter the Chemical Plant
Gone are the visceral safety hazards associated with rocks, geology, gravity and mobile equipment, replaced by the process hazards of crushing and grinding, conveyors, and the advanced chemistries of mineral extraction and refining. As more advanced and chemically intensive mineral extraction techniques are employed, the downstream side of a mining operation increasingly takes on the hazard characteristics of a fully fledged chemical plant, where strong acids and bases are used, toxic reagents such as cyanide are employed, explosive atmospheres exist, and toxic gases like hydrogen sulphide can be liberated.
From experience at mine sites over the past 6 years, for leading operators, at leading mines throughout South America, Africa and Australia, it is common to see that the downstream process safety hazards – which in many cases can yield catastrophic impacts upon a mine operation – do not come with the same depth of expertise, the same focus on delivering leading risk management standards, or the same drive to reduce risks to ALARP, as with their upstream siblings.