Q&A - Dr Pat Foster on mining safety

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2015

Dr Pat Foster, Senior Lecturer in Mining Engineering at the UK’s Camborne School of Mines, talks to Rhiannon Garth Jones about mining safety around the world, education and the future of the industry. 

Tell me about your career.

I studied mining engineering at the University of Nottingham and continued there to undertake a PhD with the support of British Coal, investigating applications of risk assessment in the mining industry. When I left, I went to work for International Mining Consultants for four years before joining Camborne School of Mines in 2000. In my career, I have spent a lot of time in South Africa. In 1997, the South African Government promulgated a new Mining Health and Safety Act, which created a need to undertake formal risk assessments at mines. A lot of this work involved helping companies implement those assessments as well as training managers. I’m lucky enough to still visit South Africa regularly, and continue to train managers in safety and risk assessment all around the world, most recently in Canada. That’s one of the great things about the mining industry – there are so many opportunities to travel and that is very attractive to students. Not long ago, Australia couldn’t get enough graduates in mining and we had regular presentations by Australian companies to the Camborne students. It was an incredible time to be working in the industry. It’s got harder since then with the commodity prices going down, but if you are willing to travel, the work is still there.

Do you think a background in health and safety opens up more opportunities in the mining industry?

Safety is an incredibly important issue in the mining industry and, therefore, in mining education. At Camborne, in the third year, we focus a lot on safety and sustainable development. It’s an important topic for the students and, if they learn nothing else from the course, they will always use their safety education at some point in their careers. When the students come back for annual dinners and evening events, they always tell me that they found my lectures on safety and risk very useful.

Do you think safety culture has changed during your time in the industry?

I think, generally, over many years the culture has changed for the better. There are still a large number of safety issues, but they are slowly reducing. It’s important that when accidents do occur in mining, the companies investigate the causes. Over the last 20 years there has been a big shift to the use of formal risk assessment, which, if done well, can make a difference. Things don’t change overnight and changing culture, behaviours and safety maturity takes time. It is unfortunate that the people tend to only see and hear about the things that go wrong, and not the occasions when things go right.

Do you think there has been a change in the UK?

I think the contraction of the UK industry would be the biggest change. When I started studying mining, there were around 100 collieries and now there are only three. There were also seven universities where you could study mining engineering, and now there is one. I worry, especially from an educational point of view, that in the future we won’t have the skills to extract the huge reserves of coal that we still have and may need, because there are so few opportunities to work with coal in this country.

Can education bridge that gap between knowledge and expertise?

It’s going to have to. People often assume that Camborne, because it’s in West Cornwall, is focused on hard rock, but at the end of the day we teach all types of mining – hard rock, soft rock, open pit, quarrying. There is no doubt that the graduates have the knowledge to go into any part of the industry, whether that is here or overseas, but if we lose the knowledge and experience of the people who currently work with coal, it will be very hard to get it back. I think we should worry in the long term.

Is that the biggest challenge for the future?

Possibly. I think the skills shortage generally is an issue. From both Camborne’s and the industry’s point of view, It’s important to attract people who want to work in the industry, whether in the UK or overseas. As well as challenges for the UK, there are many real and potential opportunities. There are a number of exciting mineral prospects opening up. For example, in the southwest, a big tungsten mine has just started operating. In the northeast, there is a big potash prospect being looked at, and there are other projects going on in Cornwall. It’s an exciting time and environment, and whether it takes off depends on whether it is feasible for them to be mined, if the resources are there to expand and if we have the skills to exploit them.

Tell me more about what you do at Camborne.

Camborne is the mining school at the University of Exeter. We educate students in mining, minerals and geology, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. We take on about 100 undergraduates every year, and about 80 Masters students. In terms of mining, we cover the whole spectrum of activities – not just technical aspects of mining engineering, but also a lot of management stuff, such as safety management, environmental management, project management, accounting and other skills that are crucial for engineers to have. Over the past couple of years, we have had excellent employability from our courses. We also have our own mine, of which I have been the mine manager for the past 12 years, which I suppose is the ultimate ambition of many mining engineering graduates. For us, it’s a real living laboratory that complements technical and geological teaching.

What has been the standout experience of your career?

I still work with many mining companies, particularly with respect to safety education. Since 2007, I have been involved with Anglo American, educating their managers and supervisors in a huge programme that has involved a number of other mining universities around the world. Over this time, their safety performance has significantly improved and it is pleasing to have made a small contribution to this improvement. Last year, I became the mining industry representative on the multi-stakeholder group of the UK’s implementation of the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI). In terms of the mining industry in the UK, the real value of the EITI to me is not just the transparency and reporting, but the opportunity to use the results at a national and local level to debate and highlight such issues as the absolute need for minerals, resource sustainability and future energy security. That is something I am very much looking forward to.