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Mining Facility Fire Protection

Monday, December 22, 2014  
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by Tamara Matthews

Fire protection at a mining facility is serious business. Safety at a mining facility is serious business, period, and keeping track of the various demands from regulatory agencies when working on a mine site can make for interesting work that keeps you on your toes.

Ted Smith of Jorgensen Company, a NAFED member based out of Fresno, California, knows firsthand what it is like to balance the needs of a unique environment like a mining operation. Working out of the Bakersfield branch of Jorgensen, Smith has managed fire protection work at a borax mine for over twenty years.

At the mine, Jorgensen works on Halon systems, dry chemical systems, sprinklers, fire alarm systems, and the facility’s portable extinguishers. Work in the mining pit, however, requires a pit driver’s license. “The only thing we’re not doing is the heavy haul equipment in the pit. Other than that we do everything else in the plant,” says Smith.

The borax mine, currently operated by Rio Tinto, is the largest open pit mine in California and one of the most extensive deposits of borate mineral in Earth. Borates were first discovered in the area in 1872, and the mine was established in the 1920s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company owned by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith. The company became known for the cleaning products Boraxo and 20 Mule Team, both still commercially available today, but the mineral is currently put to a variety of uses, including insulation, ceramics, and pest control.1

 

Like many jobs, Jorgensen got the work when the customer was dissatisfied with their previous provider. Jorgensen had done some work at cement plants but never anything like a mining facility. “I didn’t even know who MSHA was at the time,” says Smith.

He quickly became acquainted with MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration), the regulatory body that oversees mine safety activity. According to the MSHA website, "The Mine Act applies to all mining and mineral processing operations in the United States, regardless of size, number of employees, or method of extraction. Thus, MSHA covers two-person sand and gravel pits as well as large underground coal mines and processing plants." 2

In overseeing such a high-risk industry, MSHA has a very exact idea of the type of safety pitfalls it wants to avoid. This includes restrictions on ladder use, chewing tobacco, and even how you maneuver through the site. “You can’t, in the wintertime, put your hands in your pockets,” says Smith. “You have to always have three points of contact.” To keep on top of things, every Jorgensen employee who works the site receives thorough training, including an 8-hour refresher every year.

The onsite safety measures are crucial in an environment that presents fire risk unlike anything most distributors see at their other sites. Mining facilities feature many enclosed spaces and, often, combustible materials, making potential fatalities from a fire event a very real issue.

You could say fire is what created MSHA in the first place. It was formed in 1977 in response to the Sunshine Mine disaster where ninety-one men died of smoke inhalation or carbon dioxide poisoning following a fire at a silver mine in Idaho.3 Conditions have improved ever since. According to the MSHA statistics, "Mining fatalities dropped sharply under the Mine Act from 272 in 1977 to 86 in 2000."2

Perhaps part of the success comes from the way MSHA adjusts its regulations following any type of incident that occurs at the facilities it oversees. “Every time somebody’s injured or killed in the mines,” says Smith, “it trickles down through MSHA at every one of the mines.”

The penalty for not following the rules can be stiff. “When they show up onsite, if they find any violations and it’s due to a contractor, then the contractor gets cited. I think the lowest citation they have is $1,000, and it can go up to over $100,000,” says Smith. “You’ve got to really keep your t’s crossed and your i’s dotted.”

In addition to keeping ahead of MSHA changes, a fire equipment distributor who works on a mining facility needs to be aware that the private company running the mine will also have their own set of rules. So in addition to keeping on top of what MSHA requires, Smith has to keep up on what Rio Tinto requires, which he says can go beyond even the MSHA requirements.

The benefit of working at a plant that processes a mineral that’s a natural fire retardant is a fortunate lack of fires. “That’s really the most rewarding thing we have out there. We go out there and we don’t have any problems with anything catching on fire,” says Smith. “Borax itself is a non-flammable product; it’s actually a fire retardant.”

For anyone looking to take on a mining client, Smith advises to be prepared to get acquainted with MSHA and MSHA rules. “You name it, they’ve got a manual on it. You’ve got to really read the books so you can be up on everything.” And reading the manuals is not just a simple formality. To stay out of trouble Smith says, “You’ve just got to follow the rules as close as you can.”

References:

1. Borax, www.borax.com. Accessed April 8, 2014.

2. Mine Safety and Health Administration, www.msha.gov. Accessed March 26, 2014.

3. United States Mine Rescue Association. “Mine Accidents and Disasters: Sunshine Mine Fire” Available at: www.usmra.com/saxsewell/sunshine.htm. Accessed March 20, 2014.


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