This is the last in the current series of near-miss incidents from my time working as a young man in a South African gold mine. In this story I focus particularly on young workers and the need to provide them with sufficient information and appropriate supervision.
As an apprentice in the early 70s I was working on a large gold mine where we, as apprentices, were moved to different departments to gain the maximum amount of exposure to different equipment and processes; on this particular occasion I was seconded to the gold plant where the ore was processed to produce the final product, 16Kg ingots of gold. Within the gold plant there were also sub-sections and I was placed in the milling section which was responsible for grinding the crushed ore into slurry using tube, ball and pebble mills.
One of the “rites of passage” for any apprentice is to give them the boring, repetitive tasks, this particular one was to complete a daily inspection of the large driving gears of the various mills. This task was completed by opening an inspection cover on the gear case, and using a variable speed stroboscope, inspect the gear surfaces which, due to the action of the strobe, can seem to be either turning very slowly or, if adjusted accordingly, seem to be standing still.
"I was never given any specific instruction on the use of a stroboscope or any particular hazards"
Let us note here first of all that I was never given any specific instruction on the use of a stroboscope or any particular hazards in using them, simply I was only told how to turn the dial to alter the speed of the light flashes.
So back to the task, if memory serves me well, there were 32 Tube Mills, four Ball Mills and two Pebble Mills to inspect each morning and so I headed off to begin the tasks. Half way into the task, I opened one of the inspection covers on a Tube Mill and held up the strobe and peered inside, adjusting the flash rate to a point where the gears appeared to be at a standstill and whereupon I noted on a gear tooth what looked like a crack. Now let’s be very clear here, whilst it appeared that the gear was standing still it was in fact still turning at normal speed (ring gear at around 45 rpm) and placing my hand inside would have been catastrophic.
"Not thinking, I started to put my hand inside the gear case"
Not thinking, I started to put my hand inside the gear case to see, read: touch, what I could see on the gear. As my hand went through the inspection door, someone grabbed me and tugged my hand and arm away from the inspection door, it was my journeyman who, fortunately, came to check up on what I was busy with, and just in time too.
It is certain that had my hand touched that gear I would, as a minimum have lost my hand but I might just as well have my whole body dragged through the inspection hatch and that would certainly have been fatal.
Young workers need special attention in the work place particularly in situations where there are unfamiliar hazards, up until that point my only experience with a strobe was in a discotheque and there they were quite fun and not particularly life critical.
In the UK and under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, an employer has a responsibility to ensure that young people employed by them are not exposed to risk due to:
(1) Lack of experience
(2) being unaware of existing or potential risks and/or
(3) lack of maturity
Using these three points, I was a triple liability for a potential accident
There can be no doubt that you need to give special attention to young workers in the workplace and if you are not in the UK, and if there is no special dispensation in your regulations for the safety of young workers, you would be well advised to follow UK practice.
For further reading on UK Regulations and in particular on Young People see link below: