21 May 2024

Putting safety first at our underground mines

3 minutes read

A six-person refuge chamber

Keeping our underground teams safe is our first priority at our Kambalda operations. We have a number of measures in place, such as stench gas, emergency escapeways, self-preservation techniques and refuge chambers to ensure that, in the unlikely event of an emergency, our people will be prepared to respond.

Refuge chambers protect people during an underground emergency or event where the atmosphere becomes irrespirable, such as an underground fire, explosion, outburst of toxic gases or ground collapse, among others.

Our Vice President Safety and Sustainability Braden Dunsmore explains the vital role the chambers play in ensuring our Wyloo family and contractors stay safe.

“We are always focused on preventing emergency events in the first place, however, where an event occurs that causes reduced access to breathable air, rescue chambers provide an isolated, safe place to take refuge underground while waiting for the fresh air supply to be reinstated or a rescue to occur,” Braden said.

“When in use, they offer breathable air, water, thermally regulated conditions, communication channels, other supplies, and even card games.”

Inside a refuge chamber.

Refuge chambers are designed with safety at the forefront.

“They include a secondary emergency exit, in the event the main access door becomes blocked, as well as a window to enable visual communication between the inside and outside. The window also helps to lessen the feeling of being enclosed in a small space,” he said.

“Chambers can be fully sealed off from the surrounding environment and also provide pressure equalisation to maintain their internal pressure.

“While we always position refuge chambers in locations off underground roadways and away from potential hazards, chambers are required to be robustly designed to withstand movement around the mine to ensure they remain close to active working areas.

“They also come in a mix of sizes to accommodate for more than that of the operating crew. Our Cassini mine has eight refuge chambers while Northern Operations has 16, each with a capacity of four, six or 12 people.”

Under the Work Health and Safety (Mines) Regulations 2022, it is a legislative requirement to provide an adequate number of refuge chambers in a mine in case of an emergency, and a means of escape to an exit or refuge safely in conditions of reduced visibility or irrespirable or unsafe atmospheres.

Each chamber must have three levels of operation, with varying degrees of independence. These include:

  • Stand-by – where there is no emergency, a chamber operates under stand-by conditions with charged power packs and communication systems enabled.
  • Externally supported – where there is an emergency but no disruption to normal electrical, pneumatic and potable water services, a chamber operates under externally supported conditions.
  • Stand-alone – where there is an emergency and a chamber becomes disconnected from normal external services, a chamber can function with total independence, or stand-alone, to ensure the survival of people.

“These types of incidents are not common, and we certainly hope we never need to use a refuge chamber in an emergency, but we always want to be prepared to keep our people safe in any scenario,” he said.