Burning issues!

Burning issues!

Fires represent massive risks in so many industries. One of the most significant, however, is mining – as CHARLEEN CLARKE reports …

Nothing is being done about some of the fires raging in mines. Take, for instance, Centralia in Pennsylvania. Widely known as “the town that’s always on fire”, this abandoned American coal-mining town is home to a cobweb of coalmines that are on fire. They’ve been burning since 1962 and, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, these fires may burn for another 250 years. No one is doing anything about the situation. Putting them out is simply too costly.

The situation in Centralia is not unique. According to the same magazine, while Pennsylvania has at least 38 ongoing coal fires, this is insignificant compared to China and India, where poverty, old unregulated mining practices and runaway development have created waves of Centralias. “It’s a worldwide catastrophe,” geologist Anupma Prakash of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks has told the Smithsonian Magazine.

Mine fires are, of course, not limited to coal mines. On May 2, 1972, 174 miners entered a silver mine in Silver Valley, Idaho. Thanks to a fire, 91 people never returned.

South Africa has had its fair share of mining fires. As recently as January this year, four miners died as a result of an underground fire at an Impala Platinum mine near Rustenburg. They were overcome by fumes while they were trying to find their way to safety. And, back in 2009, 82 miners died at a Harmony Gold mine after fires in late May and early June.

While these dramatic incidents enjoy front-page news, there are many other fire-related risks that sometimes don’t receive the attention that they deserve. Just one, according to ASP Fire CEO Michael van Niekerk, is the threat of conveyor belt fires.

Belts contain polymeric materials that pose a serious risk in terms of rapid fire spread and the generation of toxic, corrosive smoke. “Conveyor belt fires threaten the lives of anyone on site and can cause the collapse of the conveyor structural elements. This will result in an excessive loss of revenue, which will be incurred by the downtime required to fix or rebuild the conveyor belt. Bearing this in mind, quality fire protection must revolve around the preservation of the conveyor belt system itself,” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

Early detection, fast-acting fire prevention solutions are key to ensuring the quick and successful extinguishing of any fire, while simultaneously cooling the affected structure. Every conveyor belt system is unique, and an individual assessment has to be made for each system in order to adequately and accurately determine where the fire risks lie for that particular system design.

To ensure early fire detection on a conveyor belt, Van Niekerk suggests the installation of Technoswitch fire-detection technologies in conjunction with suitable fire-control and extinguishant panels, which are specially suited to long-distance and moving environments.

Tyre fires – which occur on mines all too frequently – are also cause for concern. Ian Campbell, operations support manager at Otraco (a company specialising in off-the-road tyre management), says that this can be minimised by following these tips:

• Never heat or weld rims or wheels with mounted tyres, whether inflated or not;

• Use non-flammable tyre lubricants and sealants;

• Remove all foreign objects from tyres (wood, for instance);

• Avoid working near power lines;

• Proper braking procedures should be followed;

• It is vital to isolate/change smoking tyres.

How to choose a competent fire-risk assessor

• Ensure they are on a professional register;

• Check that they have experience of undertaking fire-risk assessments for your kind of business and premises;

• Request references from previous clients in premises of your type;

• Ensure that the scope of the work you want carried out is agreed upon;

• Ensure that you provide the assessor with access to all areas and information;

• Obtain alternative comparable quotes;

• Ask for proof that they have sufficient insurance;

• Keep records of the steps you took in selecting your fire risk.

Supplied by London Fire Brigade. For more information on fire-risk assessments visit

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