Using explosives is fraught with danger and sticking to the law as well as using time proven safety procedures is key to keeping those dangers to manageable levels. I have previously related to one incident involving explosives which almost lead to the death of a colleague, (alcohol related near miss) but this one is different in that we were not misguided in not seeking help for a workmate, but in this instance our selfishness out weighed our caring for fellow workers.
"Our selfishness outweighed our caring for fellow workers"
The story begins on a Sunday where some of my crew were to install a large steel door in one of the main haulages on the 91 Level of a Gold Mine, the door was intended for use in case there was a fire, where the door would have been lowered and sealed to starve a fire of oxygen. When the crew came out of the mine in the afternoon they reported that the door had been installed and was hanging in the open position but that it wouldn’t close fully due to a piece of rock which was jutting out of the side wall. They reported that the piece of rock had a crack behind it and suggested that it would be able to be blasted out relatively easy.
On the following morning I consulted with a Shiftboss, we’ll call him Tom, I told him the issue and sought his help to rectify the problem resulting in a decision that we would meet underground later in the day, take a fuse and a “stick” with us and “pop” the obstruction out. So as planned, we met about 45 minutes before the underground officials would be leaving their workplaces and we walked towards the shaft to the location of the fire door. When we got there, we saw that it would be a relatively easy task to do with a large crack behind the obstruction and we could easily place a piece of dynamite and remove the obstacle.
We placed the detonator into the charge and placed the dynamite into the crack, then he said to me that I should go in-bye to guard that side while he would guard the out-bye side, I was not happy with this as I would be covered in the dust which would inevitably be created and he, likewise, didn’t want to get covered in the dust. (This was an intake airway and being “In-Bye” would mean the dust would be carried in to the working area of that level).
"We failed to place an in-bye guard during blasting"
After consulting with his watch, we decided that as it was still early for the shiftbosses and engineering foremen to be coming out of their sections and so we made a very unwise decision to leave the In-Bye side unguarded and we would stand in the clean air Out-Bye of the blasting, a really stupid decision in hindsight.
So, the fuse was lit and we retried to our place of safety. The fuse was burning closer to the dynamite and we were peeking around the corner from our place of safety to observe the blast. But then, to our horror, we saw a colleague, Koos, walking out from the sections and about to pass the blast site. Tom jumped out from our place of safety into the tunnel and was screaming, a lot of profanity if I remember correctly, and waving his arms in the air to warn Koos of the impending detonation.
The blast went off and as the smoke quickly cleared, we saw Koos lying on the floor between the rail tracks and, to our relief, he stood up and began to dust himself off whilst looking at us with an angry and enquiring stare.
After another bout of profanity and telling us what irresponsible idiots we were, he explained that as he was walking past the blast site he had heard the unmistakable sound of a burning fuse and had thrown himself immediately to the ground at the same time the blast went off; there wasn’t a scratch on him and after he was dusted down he said “kom manne, laat ons gaan skag toe” (come guys, let’s go to the shaft”).
In addition to his conciliatory tone we made a pact that we would never speak of the incident again lest Tom lose his Blasting License. As we sat on the station waiting for the cage to come pick us up, the rest of our colleagues came around the corner, covered in grey dust and wondering what had caused the “slug” of rock dust to come drifting down the drive towards them.
So, I’m relating another blasting Near-Miss, caused this time by a failure to follow the rules and good practice and, again, not reported by those involved, another lesson not taught and I wonder how many more similar incidents, perhaps with a direr consequence, occurred in the years subsequent to this occurrence?
Safety rules, in the final analysis, are certainly important to establishing a safe working environment and just as important is reporting a near-miss so that everyone can learn from other's mistakes.
"I am a strong supporter of confidential reporting systems"
Reporting a Near-Miss is never easy when there is a possibility that someone may be severely punished for a lapse and not following safety rules and this is why I am a strong supporter of Confidential Reporting. At the time of this incident, if we had reported it, Tom would certainly have lost his blasting license, which was putting bread on the table for his family, but by not reporting it, we denied many others of a valuable lesson, follow the rules and adhere to tried and tested protocols, especially when using explosives.
It was many years afterwards that I ever mention or related this story to anyone, I wrote about it in an article on LinkedIn in 2018 that is about 40 years after the event, demonstrating how we can sometimes hide stories which could really help others not fall into the same trap and possibly more serious consequences.
If you feel that a Confidential Reporting system could be a game changer in your organisation, contact us at SafetyLogz for more information.