by Colin Rice, Managing Director at Colin Rice Exploration and Training (Pty) Ltd
Much exploration drilling is conducted in remote locations, far away from mining activity, which means these operations can escape scrutiny from the prying eyes of a safety department! In the past, this situation was particularly true in South Africa where drill sites were rarely visited or inspected by safety personnel. As a result, standards were often poor, and many exploration drilling projects did not even come close to complying with the applicable legislation.
This has changed over the past ten years however, as the subject of safety on exploration drill sites has come sharply into focus driven primarily by South African’s onerous legislative requirements. As a result of this intense focus, the safety measures taken by the majority of South African exploration drilling contractors have improved significantly and are comparable with the best international companies.
This process has not been easy; many mistakes have been made along the way and we have learned some valuable lessons. I believe there is value in sharing these lessons with our colleagues elsewhere in the world and that is what DrillSafe sets out to achieve. The following three lessons are what DrillSafe helps exploration drilling professionals to be clear on.
Lesson 1: Know the law
In South Africa, our legislation defines a mine as: ‘any borehole or excavation made for the purpose of intentionally searching for or winning a mineral.’
Every single exploration borehole, whether the hole is being drilled for a mining company, an exploration company or an individual, is ‘a mine’ and has to comply with all the regulations that apply to a mining operation. It does not matter if the borehole is 50 or 5 000 meters deep – all are subject to the same requirements.
Interestingly, the legislation excludes water from the definition of a mineral, so a water well drilled on a farm or a domestic property is not a ‘mine’ and does not have to comply with the formidable regulations that apply to an exploration borehole.
The Mine Health and Safety Act (1996) is the primary piece of legislation in South Africa governing mining (and therefore exploration) activities, but, as the name implies, the Act was written to regulate mining and not exploration drilling activities.
Like all legislation, the Act is long and dense with legalese, which makes it difficult for the layman to interpret precisely what sections apply to an exploration operation. As a consequence of this barrier, many contractors do not fully understand what their legal obligations are and, more importantly, they often do not understand what their legal liabilities are. This is a significant problem that exposes both contractors and mining or exploration companies alike to every possible legal dispute in the event of an accident.
It is crucial that we all have a pretty good understanding of what our legal responsibilities are in the country in which we are operating.
Lesson 2: Understand the nature of drill site hazards
Exploration drilling entails an extremely complex set of interrelated processes carried out by people of differing experiences and skill sets, using highpowered equipment in a variety of environments. Unless we have a very clear understanding of these interrelationships, we cannot begin to understand the hazards associated with an exploration operation, and contractors and mining companies will be exposed to significant risks. Until we all have this understanding we cannot develop an effective safety management system.
After working over many years with mining, exploration, manufacturing and contracting companies, it has become plain to see that the level of understanding about hazards associated with drilling operations is not always high enough. It is critical that all operational personnel have the ability to effectively identify every hazard associated with each activity that is part of a drilling operation.
Lesson 3: We must share safety knowledge
In South Africa, it is a legal requisite that accidents in mines (and therefore exploration operations) are reported to our authorities. Accidents are ‘graded’ according to their severity, but regardless of their grade all Lost Time Injuries will trigger a full investigation of the causes of the accident.
Unfortunately, the detail of these accidents gets swallowed up in the paperwork for other mining incidents. We do not have a database of drilling-specific incidents and accidents, nor do we have a readily accessible database of accident or incident alerts.
In many countries, Australia is a good example, there is a mechanism to share accident alerts through either a state regulated structure or through a national structure.
There is no doubt that one of the most effective mechanisms that we could use to improve safety performance is the sharing of knowledge gained from incidents and accidents – yet South Africa does not have such a mechanism in place.
How we tackled the problem
In October 2017 we decided to re-launch an initiative aimed at addressing the three issues described above – DrillSafe, www.drillsafe.co.za. (Initially launched in 2013, it was redesigned last year.)
DrillSafe is a web-based initiative through which we publish, first, a series of technical articles on major drill site hazards such as rotating drill rods, hoisting operations, wireline retrieval and high-pressure hoses. We do not believe that you can fully understand the hazards associated with rotating drill rods, for example, if you do not have a good understanding of the mechanical properties of drill rod material, the different grades of steel used in the manufacture of drill rods and the characteristics and efficiency of the different thread designs available. In these articles we delve deeply into the technical aspects of such issues.
Secondly, we also publish a series of articles on the legal aspects of exploration drilling. In these we examine the regulations that impact on exploration activities and we interpret them into easy to understand requirements. It is interesting that these ‘legal’ articles are one of the most popular parts of the website – even though they are based on South African legislation they are read by people around the world because similar regulations are applicable in many other countries.
Thirdly, DrillSafe addresses the need for knowledge transfer concerning accidents and incidents. We consider this exchange of information to be an essential part of the initiative and so we manage it in a specific way. When we become aware of an incident or accident, we ‘anonymize’ it by removing any reference to a person, a place, a product or manufacturer – our interest is only in sharing information from the incident.
While we consider this part of DrillSafe to be of huge importance, it is the one that we struggle with the most. There isn’t a mining company in the world that does not devote a huge amount of space on their websites or other publications to their ‘commitment to safety’ yet very few are willing to share safety information – in fact, several mining companies have a policy to not share safety information! This is astounding and extremely disappointing. Let me give you some examples: A few years ago, I was involved in an accident investigation in which a drill rig assistant was asked to climb up the mast of a drill rig to correct something that was out of place. He placed his foot on one of the struts and had half of his left foot amputated when the rotation head was lowered. Neither the mining company nor the contractor gave us permission to publish a safety alert, in fact we were threatened with legal action if we did!
An artisan was fatally injured when the steel wire rope on a utility winch snapped. Again, this information has not been released by the mining company. A pulldown rope on a top drive drill snapped while hoisting the drill string – there were no injuries but there certainly could have been. Again no information has been shared.
These are just some examples of the type of incidents that we are conscious of and which the industry as a whole should be made aware of – no matter where in the world we are operating. DrillSafe is trying to fill this gap.
While the DrillSafe initiative is based in South Africa, it has attracted enormous international appeal – as at mid-July, the website has received visitors from 139 countries (according to the United Nations, there are only 196 countries in the world), which suggests the initiative is fulfilling a
need in the industry.
DrillSafe is a genuine attempt to improve levels of safety performance in the exploration industry and to do this we invite companies and organizations from around the world to join us and contribute by sharing information and experiences.
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