Mine safety has come a long way over recent years. Like me, some of the veteran miners amongst you will remember wearing shorts on a mine site.

In fact, there was little to no mine safety back in the day. Most of today’s safety rules and regulations have only evolved over the last 20 years.

Of course, it seems completely ridiculous now.

From Shorts and Singlets to Fluoro’s

When I was sent to Port Hedland over 25 years ago to help out on some retrofitted walkways at a BHP mine site the standard clothing issue was two pairs of shorts, short sleeve shirts, a pair of steel tipped safety boots and a ‘bluey’ jacket to ward off the cold desert easterly winds that hit the Pilbara in winter.

There wasn’t a long sleeve shirt in sight and a reflective strip was something found on the road.

Back then you would have been laughed at if you turned up to work wearing long sleeves and trousers in the Pilbara’s blistering summer heat.

Whilst not common on site the practice of not wearing a shirt was fairly common off site, especially amongst my grano (concrete) worker friends. The only fluoro’s they would wear was a thin fluorescent vest that ended up so dirty it was completely ineffective as a safety item.

Gloves were rarely worn and bottled water would have been considered odd in our aggressive male dominated work place.

There is a YouTube Video I came across the other day at a BHP site in Port Hedland in 1988. Approximately 11 minutes and 20 seconds in you’ll see blue singlets, no shirts and shorts – not a fluoro in sight.

The timeline below demonstrates how mine site clothing has changed in just 20 years.

  • Before 1994: King Gee shorts, blue singlet and a hard hat.
  • 1994: The blue singlet was banned, much to everyone’s disgust. King Gee shorts and short sleeved button up shirts were the new norm.
  • 1999: Two reflective strips above the pockets were added to the short sleeve shirts.
  • 2002: Long pants and long shirts became voluntary and then mandatory. But in defiance we rolled the sleeves up.
  • 2003: Rolled up sleeves were banned.
  • 2005: Chevron shirts were banned and we moved to fluorescent shirts.
  • 2008: Reflective tape on hard hats was introduced.
  • 2014: Permanent gloves were to be clipped to trousers.

Our drive to provide a safer workplace in mining has caused some major structural changes to the way we work in an astonishingly short period of time.

No Site Security. No Site Access Requirements. No Worries!

Aside from the lack of standard issue PPE, there was also little to no mine safety protocols and procedures either.

I remember 20 years ago when my pregnant wife used to drive through BHP’s Nelson Point Ship Loading Facility in Port Hedland to drop me off for work with two young children aged four and two strapped into booster seats.

To get there my un-inducted wife would drive underneath a collection of conveyors operating up to 6000 tonnes per hour - alongside car dumpers, stackers, reclaimers, locomotives, ore car wagons and other heavy mining equipment.  

There was no two-way radio, no mine spec vehicle, no training and no security gate to pass through.

It’s hard to imagine this was the status quo.

Tagging and Isolating, What’s That?

I never used to lock on to isolated equipment. Yes, you heard that right.

We didn’t use hasps and locks, our standard practice was to simply tie our danger tag onto the isolated equipment’s switching mechanism with a piece of string. The switching mechanism, whilst turned off, wasn’t locked.

The hasp and lock system has only been in place since 2005.

Whilst the placing of tags is very different now the rules have not changed.  If you mess up you’re sent home with immediate effect - the standard disciplinary action in the event of a breach.

Getting the mine manager out of bed for a tagging breach is never a good career move.

Seatbelts Were Optional!?

Seatbelts whilst mandatory by Mines Safety and Inspection Regulations, punishable by a $10,000 fine, were generally considered optional on the shop floor and out in the yard.

Eventually we pushed for workers to wear them.

Convincing the operators to always belt up was a battle that wore my patience thin.

Then, one day their importance became strikingly apparent to me when one of my team members were left hanging upside down after rolling down an embankment undertaking some storm remediation works.

I regularly disciplined team members who didn’t wear their belts. To this day I know I saved a life by making no friends in the workgroup.

I even placed an out of service tag on a truck that didn’t have a seatbelt fitted.

Mine Safety – We’ve Come A Long Way

Mine safety has come a long way over the last 20 years. Not only with the clothing we wear, restrictions to site access and new ways of working but also in the way we think about our safety.

The drop in fatalities in the West Australian mining industry has fallen from 71 in the period 1991-2000 to just 13 to date for the decade from 2011-2020 – with just two years to go.

This is a phenomenal improvement and all thanks to our increased awareness of mine safety in recent years.

The statistics show fatalities are much lower than the start of this century, so there must be some good being achieved by the evolution of safety requirements, protective clothing and procedures.

I do fear (in some cases) we have taken away the self-responsibility and self-accountability for one’s own safety by removing the workers responsibility to think for themselves and implement their own safety rules.

In doing this we have forced workers to change how they might normally approach a task. This makes them work differently and could encourage new hazards to surface.

However, the positive results achieved by the evolution of mine safety far outweighs the negatives.

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Paul Young

Project Manager, WA – Engenium Pty Ltd.