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Safety alert issued on retractable ladders following the death of mine worker

retractable access ladder - death of Jack gerdes
The location of a release valve and a non functioning pull-wire appears to have contributed to the death of mine worker Jack Gerdes.

The Queensland Mines Inspectorate has released an alert on retractable access ladders. The report comes following the death of mine worker, Jack Gerdes at the Baralaba Mine on 7th July 2019.

The preliminary report indicates that Mr Gerdes was fatally injured when he became entangled between the movable part of an excavator’s access ladder and the wall of the engine room.

While the inspectorate’s investigation is on-going, the report has highlighted that Mr Gerdes injuries were likely sustained as a result of entanglement in handrails, following activation of the access ladder emergency release valve which was positioned off the access stairs.

A coronial inquiry will likely determine the exact cause of Mr Gerdes death however the regulator has indicated that Mr Gerdes was likely to have been using a release valve to lower the stairs as opposed to an ineffective pull-cable.

Previous recommendation from hydraulic stair fatality event may not have been communicated in Queensland

According to AMSJ records, a face shovel operator was killed from hydraulic stairs at a Western Australian mine site in April 2018 when he was investigating a fault from the hydraulic stairs that shut down the machine. The WA Regulators Alert highlighted that the operator was crushed by the stairs while attempting to reset an emergency stop.

While the circumstances of the incident and cause of death differ, the recommendations developed by the WA regulator were potentially serving as an ‘omen’ for the death of Jack Gerdes.

In a brief to the industry following the April 2018 incident, the WA regulator urged mining operators to conduct an audit of shovels and excavators on-site to identify all configurations of actuated access ladders and stairways that could present a crush hazard to workers accessing emergency switches.

It stated, “Pay particular attention to machines with rotating ladders and emergency pull-wire switches that could be activated inadvertently, either by personnel or by material falling against the machine.”

The alert also urged mining companies to “conduct a risk assessment of these potential crush hazards and implement appropriate controls (e.g. safe positioning of switches, clearly labelling all switches and switch positions, providing adequate lighting for all tasks).”

“Review standard operating procedures for the operation of shovels and excavators to confirm they include operation and reset of emergency switches. Train those using and accessing shovels and excavators in the reviewed standard operating procedures,” it said.

The Queensland Regulator’s website did not address hydraulic stairs as a potential critical risk to the industry.

Queensland regulator now reacting – too little too late for Mr Gerdes friends and family

Mr Gerdes death has prompted a reaction from the embattled Queensland mining safety regulator but its’ too little too late for Mr Gerdes family and friends.

Mineworkers told AMSJ at the time of Mr Gerdes death that they believed that problems with malfunctioning stairs had been identified and reported prior to his death. They said inadvertent operation of retractable stairs was an ongoing problem that required frequent resets by digger operators.

Workers said, the issue of the location of the release valve had not been reported but the Queensland mine safety regulator had previously visited the site on several occasions prior to the incident and had not communicated the potential fatal issue to management by way of mine entry records.

The regulator said in its’ alert today, “The requirements of the OEM are that the emergency release valve is intended to be operated by a pull cable, positioned in a safe location.”

It added that “The investigation has identified that this valve can be activated without the use of the pull cable, which was found to be difficult to operate.”

“For routine operation, the access ladder is lowered using a set of controls, positioned in a non-hazardous area. These controls were verified as being functional” it said.

Recommendations for mines

The Queensland minings safety regulator has now developed a set of recommendations regarding the retractable access ladders. It urged companies to:

  • Inform users of retractable ladders about the contents of its’ safety alert.
  • Although procedure (an administrative control) required the access ladder to be lowered through a safe process and location, it was physically possible to access the emergency ladder release valve. An engineering control would have been more effective in keeping persons away from this location e.g. by positioning the valve in a place that is not accessible or by covering it.
  • The design of the access ladder, where the rotating handrails pass the stationary handrails in a scissor action, should be reviewed.
  • Refer to Komatsu ‘Parts & Service News subject: “Hydraulically operated access”; Emergency release function, No AH19881; 18 July 2019’.

Additional information is available on the Queensland Regulator’s Website.

While the outcome of the final investigation won’t be known for some time, AMSJ expects that the regulator is likely to pursue multiple parties over the death of Mr Gerdes.

Designers of plant, maintainers and mine operations management are likely to be investigated by the regulator who will now be seeking ‘justice’ for Mr Gerdes family and friends.

Image: QLD Mines Inspectorate Facebook

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AMSJ April 2022