There is no doubt that alcohol in the workplace is not a great idea and whilst it may have limited acceptability in the head office boardroom or having a business sales lunch, in an industrial setting it can lead to serious injury or even death, more so when working in an underground coal mine. The colliery where I was working, about 30 years ago, was using Bord & Pillar mining with conventional cut, drill, blast and mucking out with gathering arm loaders and shuttle cars. One of our colleagues, I’ll call him Johan, was our section electrician and he was going through a rough time with marital problems which had him seeking solace in a brandy bottle and on more than one occasion he arrived at work intoxicated in one degree or another.
Being intoxicated in the workplace can never be a good idea, especially in a coal mine
Now I must make it clear here that, whilst we didn’t condone him being at work whilst drunk, my colleagues and I felt sorry for him and his situation and so we covered it up by letting him sleep it off at the engineering station and, on some occasions, when he was especially smashed, putting him in a large tool cupboard to prevent him being seen by any senior officials visiting the section. Being intoxicated in the workplace can never be a good idea, especially in a coal mine. So while we didn’t condone his conduct we did tolerate his actions by staying silent and not attempting to get him to seek help.
On a particular night shift, Johan arrived in the section much the worse for what he had drunk before the shift and he was hardly able to stand up straight, so we settled him onto a bench next to the tool boxes and let him sleep it off.
I was immediately in the thick of things attending to a breakdown and organising shift maintenance of machinery in the section. When I was finished with my tasks I sought the section miner to chat with him and, as was often the case, help him with any chores, sometimes even charging up a face if he was especially busy.
In the one face, the Coal Cutter had finished its horizontal cut, the duff (coal chippings) had been cleared back into a heap about a metre from the face to allow access for the drillers to drill the floor holes for the rounds of explosives. I went into the face with the miner and we placed the detonators and charged the holes and tamped them ready to “shoot the face”. The charges were connected and we retired to a safe distance to set off the charge and advance another three metres.
“I have to admit to another lapse in procedures here as we were preparing to blast more than one coal face at the same time”
Now I have to admit to another lapse in procedures here because the miner was blasting several adjoining faces at the same time which, though against the regulations for coal mines, it was regularly done to save time and meet production demands.
So, there we were at a safe distance and the standard warnings of whistle blows and shouting of “Pasop - Cheesa” (Danger – Blasting) being given the miner connected the generator to the wires and, on receiving the all final all clear, he rotated the handle.
Now if you have ever been in a confined space where blasting is taking place, you will know that your body braces itself in contemplation of the noise and pressure wave from the blasting, but in this instance, nothing happened… It was a total “misfire” and so the miner disconnected the blasting battery and I accompanied him to find the reason for the misfire.
We walked into the face and as we walked over the heap of duff, to our utter shock, we found Johan sleeping on top of a few empty cardboard cartons, out of sight behind the heap.
“If there was ever a time when I could say that my heart stopped then this was it..”
Had it not been for the misfire, caused we think by Johan stumbling over the wires, he would certainly severely injured if not dead.
Our reluctance to address Johan’s regularly arriving at work intoxicated could have led to his death and, no doubt, our having to live with that guilt. We also covered up what had happened to save ourselves and to ensure Johan’s continued employment on the colliery.
Lessons to be learned from this near miss:
- Follow to the letter all regulations and procedures and specifically in hazardous operations such as blasting, short cuts can never be excused
- If people arrive intoxicated to begin work, make sure you do whatever is necessary to discourage them and get them to go home and not present themselves for the shift
- If your work colleagues are having social problems or with alcohol or drugs, try to convince them get help through an in-work or industry EAP or their own doctor.
- Don’t cover up things which can endanger anyone in your work team
- Recognise that a person drunk at work is a NEAR MISS.
Soon after this event Johan resigned from the company after a mine inspector visited our section, found a number of electrical safety malpractices for which Johan was facing disciplinary action which would certainly have led to his dismissal.
Those electrical safety issues carried the potential to initiate a methane explosion which threatened my own life and my colleagues.