Q&A: John Ford, Principal Consultant at Health and Safety Engineering Consultants Ltd

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2014

Melanie Rutherford speaks to John Ford, Principal Consultant at Health and Safety Engineering Consultants Ltd, about health and safety in the UK mining industry.   

What is your background in the mining industry?
I started in 1978 as apprentice electrician at Donisthorpe Colliery, in Derbyshire, where I later became a supervisor. Prior to that, I'd done well enough in my apprenticeship study (having not done A-Levels) that the National Coal Board (NCB) offered me a place at Cardiff University, which I turned down, probably due to being young and naive. A few years later, after I'd received my IMEMME honours certificate and my MQB Electrical Engineer's certificate (which you need to operate as an engineer in a coalmine) I went back to the NCB and asked to be sponsored but they refused, because I already turned it down once. So instead I did a degree in computing and electronics with the Open University, because I really wanted the qualification. By this time, the mines had been privatised and I had moved on to RJB Mining (which later became UK Coal), which sponsored me to do an MBA and, ultimately, an engineering doctorate at Warwick University, UK.

I'm also a qualified teacher. When I was told the NCB wouldn't sponsor my degree, I wondered how I would keep all the information ticking over in my head. I'd had a part-time teacher when I studied for my IMEMME honours, which inspired me to train as a further education teacher. I passed my PGCE and started teaching electrical engineering, and then management once I had passed my MBA. I have also taught in higher education, as an associate lecturer at Staffordshire University, UK, on its foundation degree courses in Project Management and the BA (Hons) in Management.

How did you proceed, on the back of that experience and education?
When I was working as a supervisor at Donisthorpe, British Coal had a training scheme for management. The first mine I went to as a management trainee was Baddesley, in Warwickshire, which closed a couple of months after I started. Then I was transferred to Coventry Colliery, also in Warwickshire, where I was promoted to Deputy Electrical Engineer. That closed in the early 1990s. I conducted a fatal accident enquiry at Trentham Colliery, Stoke, and then I was transferred to Littleton Colliery, outside Cannock, Staffordshire, until 1994, which was still operated by British Coal. Then I was moved to Harworth, on the border of Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, before going to Daw Mill, Warwickshire, which was closer to home, where I remained until 2003. While I was there, we installed a coalface called 301s, which at that time was the most technically advanced face in western Europe. Then I was promoted to Group Automation Engineer for UK Coal, at Harworth Park. I was there until 2006, when I left to join the Mines Rescue Service, working on EU research projects. I joined the Mines Inspectorate in 2008 and recently left to work in consultancy for Health and Safety Engineering Consultants Ltd (HSEC).

What work are you currently involved with?
It’s mostly committee work. The mines inspectorate of the HSE has two series of meetings with industry, each four times a year. The first one is called the Engineering Liaison Committee, which involves HSEC (as the regulator), all mine operators (including mining electrical and mining mechanical engineers), large equipment suppliers, contractors and trade unions. We talk about current issues to do with mining electrical and mining mechanical engineering, including incidents and technical advances. The current topics are fire prevention in underground mines and the use of non-electrical equipment in potentially explosive atmospheres.

Then there is another called the Safe Manriding in Mines Committee, established after the Markham Colliery accident in 1973 when 18 people died. This committee establishes industry standards surrounding mine shafts and associated equipment. The current topics centre on maintenance.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry during your career from a safety perspective?
The biggest change is the amount of mining done. When I started out in the industry there were 180 UK mines and around 200,000 miners, purely in coal. Now there are only three mines, and about 3,500 miners, including salt and potash mines. That's been a tremendous change, both on the industrial and social sides. Technology-wise, the amount of automation and the use of computers and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are massive changes too. Socially, this has meant a drain of skills away from  the industry, with the remaining ageing workforce trying to adapt to rapidly changing technology. My generation wasn't brought up with computers. That's been a challenge for us all really, to become equipped to work in today's world.

From a safety perspective, fewer people working means there are fewer people to get injured. Although from 2006–11 there have been 13 fatalities, the industry is far safer than it used to be. In this country, we no longer have the coal dust explosions that used to kill more than 100 people, and we haven't had an electrocution in a mine since 1997, which I'm quite proud of. That’s especially impressive when you consider that nearly 1,000 electrical accidents are reported to the HSE every year, of which around 25 are fatal.

What do you think the reasons for that are?

I think they’re twofold. The training and competence of the people who work the systems, and the fact that the electrical permit-to-work system that most mines use was developed by electricians and not by managers, as it used to be, a step that was taken after the fatality at Maltby Colliery in 1997.

Can you tell me more about that case and any other interesting cases you have investigated?

The fatality at Maltby colliery in Yorkshire happened on a 6,600V system. The equipment had been built up incorrectly and the electrician thought he had isolated the power supply, but he hadn't. He didn't use his deadline checker, which tells you if a conductor is live or not. He touched one that he thought was dead but was actually live. That event was before my time at HSE, but I was involved in designing the electrical permit-to-work system that came out of that. It didn't change any legislation, but it did change the company procedures. The system was developed bottom up instead of top down and involved the technicians that operate it. Full management commitment was given to this new system and the technicians bought into it.

There was also a fatal accident enquiry at Trentham. To keep the air where you want it underground, the ventilation system contains a series of air locks, and some of the doors are very big and powerful. Some are automatic so that vehicles can travel through, and pedestrians should walk through a door to the side of these. A man had been working underground for only four weeks and he went through a set of automatic doors, wedged open on the rail track. They weren't supported very well, and as he went through he made the rails bounce, releasing the wedge effect and the doors sprang shut on him. Because of that, a mechanical engineer, a safety engineer and I came up with some national rules to try to prevent something like that happening again, called Design, Installation and Use of Powered Air Doors. These rules are a standard that the industry now works to, and safety surrounding powered air doors has never been better.

How do you see the future of the industry?

I think the UK has the safest mining industry in the world. But we can still get better. The areas where we've had accidents, particularly fatal ones, over the last few years have been falls of ground, apart from the four men who drowned in South Wales in 2011. We also keep having fires underground, although while these pose a high safety risk, no fire-related incidents have occurred. In coalmines the risk comes from conveyor fires and in non-coal mines from fires on diesel vehicles. I think those are the three main challenges for the industry, in addition to a decreasing and ageing workforce (the average age of the workforce is 49, although there are still some younger people coming in), which creates a skills gap. Of course, that's against a backdrop of reduced demand, too, particularly in the coal sector.  

Three memorable cases:
Kellingley colliery, methane explosion, 2010: My role was to see if there were any electrical reasons behind the build-up of flammable gas, and then if there was an electrical source of ignition. There wasn't, but I had to prove that was the case by examining every piece of electrical equipment in the ignition zone.

Gleision, South Wales, four miners drowned, 2011: I was the second inspector onsite, and the investigation remains ongoing. There was no electrical aspect, but in my capacity as an inspector I worked with the police to gather evidence.

Maltby colliery, substation explosion, 2013: I was the investigating inspector. This was a pure electrical fault, caused by an electrical short circuit. The main thing was that nobody was injured, although half of the switchboard was substantially damaged.  

For more information, email john.ford@hsec.co.uk  

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