Technological innovations and advancements, as well as training programs and safety education, are constantly changing the way that mine safety is carried out across the world. Despite these enhancements and training, it can be almost impossible to predict how people will respond when faced with an emergency, unless there was a way to simulate an emergency in a controlled environment.
Throughout mining history, one thing has remained critical: ensuring the wellbeing and safety of mine workers.
Constant updates to regulations and safety protocols are a surefire way to keep workers prepared and informed, but even the most prepared individuals can find themselves frozen in fear when faced with a real life emergency.
Understanding this problem, and working to mitigate it, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia (CME) co-hosts two mine competitions each year with the Mine Emergency Rescue Competition Committee.
Held yearly for more than a century, these competitions aim to simulate real-life emergency situations in order to observe and analyse peoples’ reactions in a controlled environment, while allowing them to use their training.
CME’s CEO, Rebecca Tomkinson, said, “Since the original gold prospectors arrived in the Western Australian Goldfields in the early 1900s, safety has been paramount, with the first underground mine rescue competition held in the Goldfields in 1911.”
The Surface Mine Emergency Rescue Competition (SMERC) takes place annually in April or May, and the Underground Mine Emergency Rescue Competition (UMERC) is held in November.
Participating teams generally compete in multiple events, including:
- Firefighting (SMERC)
- Vehicle Extrication (SMERC)
- Search and Rescue (UMERC)
- Breathing Apparatus Skills (UMERC)
- Team Skills
- Rope Rescue
- Overall First Aid
- Incident Management
Participating teams are also judged and awarded prizes in other categories as well, including hazardous materials management, first aid, overall first aid, firefighting, confined space, theory, team skills, vehicle extrication and incident management competitions.
In the 100-plus year history of the competitions, Ms Tomkinson said the safety landscape has evolved significantly, but the critical importance of keeping workers safe has remained constant.
“While safety looks very different today, this long-standing tradition continues to showcase the techniques, technology and skills that have been developed and honed by our industry over the more than 100 years.
“Even though the procedures and equipment have evolved immensely, the importance of clear thinking, fortitude and team work remain, and through simulated emergencies, response teams are tested in a safe environment that has proven an invaluable means of preparation for real-life scenarios.
“The competition is a unique event that builds camaraderie, shares best practice and showcases the skills and fortitude of great teams. The ability to be part of the competition is a positive point of difference for companies vying for talent.”
This is demonstrated, she said, by the significant surge in interest as companies position the competition as a benefit to attract and retain essential staff, even amongst persistent skills and labour shortages in Western Australia.
“Highlighting the importance of safety, honing the skills of emergency response teams and providing a collaborative environment for our member companies.”
The impact on the industry
Ms Tomkinson said that because each mine site approaches emergency response a little differently, the ability to learn from others is incredibly important and is a key component of the competition’s success.
“It simply isn’t common practice to deliver the level of training on-site that occurs at these competitions,” Ms Tomkinson said.
It can be hard to prepare and train workers due to the impossibility of being able to predict how people will react to emergency situations. Exposing them to simulated scenarios that are similar to actual emergencies can equip individuals to better respond should an emergency occur.
“The competitions act as a benchmark to ensure that if there was a genuine emergency on-site, teams are adequately experienced to handle it.”
The resources required to set up multilevel scenarios with complex moving parts is immense, with competitors expressing that the sensory overload experienced is vital to get accustomed to.
“Human instinct (even when you’re well trained) is to run away from the flames rather than towards them. This controlled environment teaches you to take a breath and trust your skills,” Ms Tomkinson said.
In reference to the competitions, one safety adviser said, “You can’t ever prepare mentally for the sights, sounds, smells and overwhelming feeling in an emergency situation; though this comes close.”
Bringing the competitions to life
The competing teams are refreshed each year, exposing as many different people as possible to the competition. Some of the participating teams are made up of 50 per cent first time emergency responders, but Ms Tomkinson said that it’s that diversity in skills, knowledge and personalities that brings energy and new perspectives to the group.
The competitions aren’t open to just anyone, with teams undergoing training for months prior to participating in the events.
“Each team tackles their training in their own way. Nominations are sought months ahead to allow significant preparation. Some choose to conduct training in-house, others hire emergency response specialists to put them through their paces.
“Either way, the scenarios in each event remain a secret until teams enter into the host competition site. This helps to create a realistic environment, if this were a reallife rescue there is no time to pre-prepare your strategy.”
CME’s Mine Rescue Committee run year-round, with each competition requiring hundreds of hours of preparation – designing the event, managing risk, preparing competitors and securing qualified adjudicators.
“Disciplines put to the test during competitions include firefighting, hazardous chemical response, firstaid, team skills, vehicle extrication, rope rescue, incident management, confined space rescue and then a theory component. Emergency response could be one or all of these things in a real-life situation,” Ms Tomkinson said.
The 2022 underground competition was a first-of-its-kind, combining all of the above into one major disaster – a seismic event – that helped elevate the competition to an even more realistic level.
“A flood trapping people (actors) meant paddling, delivering first aid and rowing workers to safety. It brought the controlled emergency simulations together including firefighting, search and rescue, fire aid, incident management and team skills,” Ms Tomkinson said.
Winners are determined using a tough scoring system, with guides providing criteria for each scenario.
“Scores are weighted on items such as communication, record keeping, equipment control and risk management. Several chief adjudicators score and compare results, before scrutineers observe and determine a winner for each category,” she said.
Competitions can also be impacted by changes to regulations and legislation, with new breathing apparatus standards, for example, being released and needing to be incorporated into the new procedures for scenarios.
Similarly, updated regulations in Western Australia mean that sites must demonstrate an ability to perform search and rescue – and the competition is the ideal scenario to safely enable this.
Showcasing the significance of safety
“When attending the awards ceremony that follows the competition, one thing is clear; the passion and dedication of the teams is palpable,” Ms Tomkinson said.
“The room erupts into standing ovations for those honoured with commemorative medals for 20-30 years of service. After two days competing, teams have weary heads, aching muscles, new mates and immense pride that they can respond to an emergency and get their colleagues home safely.”
Chair of the Turkish Miners Association and Head of the European Safety Commission, Goksel Alpaslan, attended a recent competition and said, “The Goldfields Underground Mines Emergency Response Competition is considered the global benchmark for mine rescue competitions.”
“It’s a testament to how internationally well-regarded the underground competition is and we are so proud to carry on this more than 100-year tradition today,” Ms Tomkinson said.
Norton Gold Fields’ Paddington team was crowned the best overall team at the most recent Surface Mine Emergency Response Competition, held in May 2023.
Attention has now turned to the upcoming Underground Mine Emergency Rescue Competition, which is set to take place later this year.