Paul Gibson, International Sales Manager for MSA Bristol, a global leader of cutting-edge firefighter protection, talks to Matt Campbell, Emergency Services Principal at Rio Tinto in Australia, about the role of Emergency Responders in the mining industry and their specific PPE requirements.
In an industry such as mining, health and safety is absolutely paramount. By the nature of the job, workers tend to deal with heavy machinery, often in hostile conditions, and frequently operate in remote areas where sometimes a hospital can only reasonably be reached by air.
The global mining giant Rio Tinto mines and processes mineral resources, including iron ore, copper, diamonds, aluminium, borates, salt and titanium dioxide. It owns an integrated network of 16 iron-ore mines across the vast Pilbara region in the north-west of Australia. They are supported by four independent port terminals as well as a 1,700km rail network and related infrastructure.
Evidently, the provision of effective emergency services for the thousands of workers employed at these mines is essential to the smooth running of Rio Tinto’s operations in the area.
Matt Campbell is Emergency Services Principal for Rio Tinto, responsible for co-ordinating Emergency Response teams, setting protocols and overseeing emergency operations in the Pilbara region. He helps to manage 120 full-time Emergency Services Officers (ESOs) and Supervisors stationed across the mine sites, as well as a team of 550 volunteers who make up the Emergency Response Teams. All volunteers are full-time employees or contractors for Rio Tinto, who have been provided with specialist training and assist the ESOs on a rota system.
The Emergency Response teams are trained to handle all manner of incidents, from medical emergencies and structural fires to wildfires and road traffic accidents.
Matt explains what a typical day might entail for the Emergency Response teams, and how the well-organised provision of high-quality PPE helps to keep them safe:
‘Our Emergency Response teams work on a Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) or are residential in nearby townsites. For the FIFO teams, they are flown in from towns and cities across Western Australia to work 12-hour shifts for an intensive eight days at a time. The work is busy and varied, since the team acts as a fire crew and an ambulance crew, as well as running the site medical centres.
‘Shifts begin with prepping equipment for the day ahead and ensuring all equipment is operationally ready for response. The Medical Centres are open to see to any employees with health concerns or minor injuries, as well as undertaking randomised alcohol and drug screening exercises. There are also frequent training sessions to ensure skills are kept up to date. Of course, in addition to this, the teams need to be ready to respond immediately to a variety of emergencies that could occur at any time.
‘Our most common call-outs are medical emergencies, such as cardiac arrests, that need a swift response and medical intervention. We also handle two or three fire-related incidents per week across the region. These are usually structural fires involving mining equipment or buildings. During the hottest months of the year we can also be called upon to help control bush fires in the area. These tend to be fast-moving grass fires that can be very dangerous, so we work closely with the government fire teams to co-ordinate a rapid and effective response. Occasionally, around once a month, we are called to deal with a road traffic accident. Thankfully, in such a remote location the roads are fairly quiet, but we do have a number of high-speed zones and highways with fast-moving traffic, so when a collision occurs it can be serious.
‘Our Operations are divided into three regions: Coastal, West Pilbara and East Pilbara. I work with the Central Emergency Services Team, which involves flying to a different site in each of these areas every week to help with coaching, auditing and problem solving. We pride ourselves in ensuring that every ERT site is well-managed and co-ordinated, operating in the same way and using the same systems and protocols to ensure best practice.
‘The provision and maintenance of specialist PPE plays a very important role in this. When we send our crew into emergency situations, we need to be satisfied that they have good-quality protective clothing and equipment that will keep them safe. In 2017, we overhauled our PPE provision by purchasing 400 sets of MSA Bristol’s Ergotech Action structural firefighting jackets and trousers, via Pac Fire, their dedicated distributor in Australia. The kit was more expensive than our previous PPE, but well worth the cost. It is comfortable, lightweight, ergonomic and breathable, and the moisture barrier in particular performs a dual role: stopping water passing through to the responder’s personal clothing while allowing perspiration and heat to escape to the outside atmosphere. This reduces the risk of heat stress to the responder and keeps the body cool. Heat stress is a very real danger out here where temperatures frequently exceed 40 degrees Celsius.
‘Along with the new PPE, we also introduced an innovative and award-winning system for handling its cleaning and maintenance. Across the world, fire and rescue services are learning more about the long-term health impacts from exposure to contaminants both during and after a fire-related incident. At Rio Tinto, we faced the challenge of devising a cost-effective means of providing well-fitting, high-quality PPE for a varied and interchanging workforce. In addition, being remotely located, miles from professional cleaning services, we also needed a means of efficiently cleaning and decontaminating kit on site.
‘Our BARRIO system ensures that each member of the team has access to kit that is the right size, clean and fit for purpose, and that exposure to harmful smoke particles is kept to a minimum. Rather than providing an individual with their own set of kit, the BARRIO system effectively works as a well-stocked library. Each member of the team is carefully measured and has a ready-made kit for response.
‘Immediately following an incident, kit is placed in a DOT bag – a storage device for contaminated PPE – which is then placed in a designated area on the fire truck and taken back to the station. The PPE is then laundered, where the responder will take another set from the BARRIO library to reinstate their kit for the next response. Each station has at least two industrial-scale washing machines to handle the cleaning of the kit, which is then dried and placed back in the BARRIO library ready for use.
‘Under the BARRIO system, the life cycle of each garment is monitored, with a log kept dating it’s manufacture and every wearer, incident, wash and repair.
‘Occasionally, we do have to deal with major incidents, and thankfully when put to the test, our PPE and BARRIO system continue to perform well. Our teams have been called out to major structural fires that have lasted up to 12 hours. Despite the intense heat, the Ergotech Action PPE helped to keep our Emergency Responders cool and protected, and the BARRIO system ensured that kit was handled safely after the fire was extinguished.’
It is evident that Emergency Responders working in the mining industry are operating under a unique set of circumstances. They must be adaptable, multi-skilled, and prepared to deal with a myriad of possible incidents on any given day. Rio Tinto have clearly prioritised the health and wellbeing of their Emergency Response teams by devising and investing in an excellent system to provide them with top-quality PPE, backed up with an efficiently managed cleaning and maintenance programme, thereby maximising user safety in both the short and long term.
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