The price of fire safety for the mining industry

Online Editor

Can mines really afford hundreds of millions of dollars in fire damage?

Fires and explosions pose a constant threat to the safety of miners and to the productive capacity of mines. Mine fires and explosions have traditionally ranked among the most devastating industrial disasters. The prevention and control of these events in mines is fundamental.

On a mine site, fire hazards may occur in and around process plants, underground conveyors, static and mobile plants, draglines, workshops, substations, monitored control rooms and switch rooms. All mines have highly expensive and mission critical equipment that typically operates day and night under extremely hostile conditions: vast, remote and difficult to access environments, especially underground. In many cases fixed fire suppression systems are the preferred systems installed to protect the high value assets, to safeguard the operators and to guarantee business continuity.

Fire is dangerous. Fire is expensive. Is there a price for safety?

Below are several examples of fire incidents in the mining industry between 2013-2019 and their associated property damage and business interruption and business interruption costs:
•  Fire in a benefaction plant: US$120m
•  Hot work failure: US$65m
•  Conveyor fire: US$60m
•  Fire in processing plant: US$45.5m
•  Shaft fire: US$90m
•  Surface fire: outstanding
•  Transformer fire: US$50m
•  Underground conveyor fire: US$70m
•  Underground longwall fire: US$125m
•  Surface conveyor fire: US$20m

It can be argued that the competitive nature of the free-market places great pressure on the fire industry to deliver systems that minimally comply with, rather than exceed, the regulations. Too often fire protection is seen as a cost – not a vital investment for business continuity – rather than a means to save lives.

High-value assets such as critical mining infrastructure, may have catastrophic results in the event of downtime or shutdown due to fire. The risk far exceeds the cost of choosing minimal compliance, instead of advanced real-time monitoring systems. The cost of damage to reputational integrity as a result of downtime far exceeds the cost of integrating a real-time monitoring system.

Fire safety is still an ‘ungoverned space’ in the mining industry

In terms of fire extinguishing systems there exist two broad categories: sprinkler systems; and liquefied gaseous systems such a clean agents FM-200, Novec 1230 or CO2. The former can suffer leakage, but the latter can cause greater damage given its physical pressures. Regulations require that the extinguishing agent stored in cylinders must be checked annually. The traditional method requires turning off the system, dismantling and weighing each cylinder. Thorough testing can take hours and several qualified, trained personnel.

Anecdotes of bad practice include low labour rate servicing crews being unskilled, unreliable and untrained. Disreputable companies have also been known to randomly check a few cylinders and place “tested” stickers on the rest of the untested ones.

These issues risk the integrity of mining operations, because in the event of fire, there may be insufficient agent to extinguish it. For such safety-critical operations, these systems should be permanently monitored. Yet they remain unsupervised and unmonitored 364 days a year until their annual certification check.

Copper mining industry case study: Zambia

One company that researched the market to find an easier, accurate and more efficient method for inspecting its fire system is a copper mining operator in Zambia. This well-established, growing mining company annually produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of copper.

The head of instrumentation discovered an innovative method: Portalevel ultrasonic technology. This makes servicing quicker and requires just one person to identify the liquid level of agent inside the cylinders. There is no need to turn off or dismantle the system. By testing in situ, the integrity of the system is maintained and there is no increased risk to people or facility by shutting down the system for the duration of maintenance checks.

Mining vehicle servicing case study: Canada

Another company that adopted cheaper, faster and better technology is a heavy equipment servicing expert in Canada, which uses Portalevel Max technology to service fire suppression systems on large mining equipment. This allows the company to conduct safer and more efficient inspections. As the Portalevel Max is portable, the servicing company is able to use its one unit to service four sites, making servicing cheaper and easier.

Mining industry trend to govern the ungoverned space

Safety is becoming recognised as an area that must no longer be overlooked. The industry is beginning to opt for more regular inspections and even continuous 365-day monitoring.

The ability to monitor autonomously, with remote diagnostics and remote relay that can provide an alarm to the fire safety officer or facilities manager provides confidence in the integrity of the system. Minimising the risk of fire in the long run can improve business continuity, save downtime and also the potential costly pay-out that fire damage entails. 

Smart solutions with innovative mining technology

New Safesite technologies offer a great opportunity to the mining industry – enabling confidence that the fire system is safeguarded and assets protected. Examples include the Portalevel Max handheld ultrasonic liquid level indicator for testing most common fire extinguishing agents in 30 seconds, with accuracy of +/-1.5mm, and the Portasteele Calculator tablet-based app converting the liquid level into agent weight/mass with ease, simplicity and ability to record and export the results. The Permalevel Multiplex, meanwhile, is for 24/7 autonomous, continuous monitoring of fire suppression systems, with remote relay, remote diagnostics and alarm capability to alert in case of agent leak/discharge.

The fires that continue to occur pose a dangerous threat to both business continuity and human lives, yet they are entirely preventable. Increasingly, the mining industry is acknowledging the risk to assets, and fire suppression systems are being retrofitted in existing sites. We must now continue to educate and lead, ensuring that no more lives are lost nor critical assets damaged. There are smart ultrasonic fire safety solutions available that enable mine owners and operators to improve their fire safety management and reduce the threats to human life, and business continuity caused by any downtime, hereby diminishing the risk to business reputation and cost.


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