Q&A with Bob Leeming, UK Health and Safety Executive

Materials World magazine
2 Mar 2016

Tell me about your background in the industry.

I joined the National Coal Board (NCB) just after the strike in 1974. My father, who was Group Planner in the Western Area of the NCB, arranged an interview with the Head of Training. Initially, I requested a surveying course, to follow my father, but this was fully subscribed. There were still places on the Mining Engineering student apprenticeship scheme, so I accepted this route. I soon realised that this had been a fortuitous choice as far more doors were available to me. I graduated from the North Staffs Polytechnic (now Staffordshire University) with a BSc and later gained my First Class Certificate of Competency. I remained in line management, working in north and south Staffordshire, Cumbria and back to south Staffordshire, before leaving the NCB in 1987 to join HSE as HM Inspector of Mines and Quarries. At that point, the mine closure programme had started to bite and further promotion prospects dried up. I was posted to South Wales, spending three years there before a move to Nottinghamshire, as the South Wales industry contracted.

What have been your major career achievements to date? 

I hold the record for being the youngest Mines Inspector ever appointed! During my time in South Wales, I was instrumental in reducing the accident ratio between the private mines to the NCB mines from 4:1 down to 1.1:1. This was achieved mainly by persuasion, with little resort to formal enforcement – they just needed to be shown what compliance looked like. An increased presence also encouraged them, of course. 

I have had the opportunity to present technical papers to international audiences and thus drive improvements in standards and practices across the world. This activity has also enabled me to build up contacts and friendships that have been invaluable in exchanging H&S information, particularly in the topics of mine ventilation, and use of explosives.

My most memorable project, and probably my major career achievement, has been to drive through the legislative renewal programme over the past few years. This project saw the replacement of nearly 50 sets of mine specific legislation containing nearly 1,000 separate provisions, with a single set of Mines Regulations. These are goal setting rather than prescriptive, and have moved the duties from the mine manager on to the mine operator. They also place an emphasis on competence rather than just training. They came into force on 6 April 2015 and have been a great success, with a very smooth transition from old to new. They are supported by new guidance, which had to be written from scratch. Significantly, the regulations are being adopted in their entirety by Northern Ireland, with only slight amendment necessary in the ‘explosives’ section.

Where does your main area of interest currently lie? 

Currently I am facilitating the upskilling the team of 11 inspectors to enable us to take on work in the onshore drilling sector, to aid colleagues in the wells team. This is in anticipation of an upsurge in onshore drilling activity as fracking licenses are granted.

I have always had an interest in mine ventilation, and in ignition prevention. I hold the view that ignitions are best prevented by ensuring the absence of a flammable atmosphere. If this cannot be achieved, then every potential ignition source has to be controlled.

Can you tell me about any interesting projects currently underway?

At the moment, there are a number of new mining propositions in the UK that I am advising. These include one potash and two coal operations in England, and two gold operations in Northern Ireland. The potash proposal in north Yorkshire is planned to be the largest mining project undertaken in the UK since the Selby project of the 1980s. The mine will exploit mineral at around 1,600m depth with a planned output of up to 20mtpa.

This is fascinating and very rewarding work. I have set up small multi-disciplinary teams to work with each developer – my intention is to ensure that proposals from the developers meet the 'as low as reasonably practicable' (ALARP) principals and comply with current mining and more general H&S legal requirements. Thus, any problems with adoption of inappropriate equipment or practices can be designed out at the planning stage to avoid the problems and expense of corrections further down the line.

How have you seen the mining industry change over the course of your career? 

The biggest change has clearly been the demise of the deep coal mining industry in Great Britain. When I started my career, there were 250 large coal mines operated by the NCB, employing 250,000 men. Now there are none. At the same time, what was the licensed coal mining sector has reduced from more than 130 mines to less than half a dozen. It is a shame that old coal mining communities have suffered – as the mines were closed, a huge amount of money was removed from the local economies.

 The non-coal sector, however, has remained buoyant. Demand for building products, such as plaster, vary with the level of building activity, and stone products continue to be in demand for renovations. Indeed, a slate mine is proposed in Northamptonshire to obtain specialist roofing products to replace the roof on one of the major university buildings, as there is no longer a sufficient supply of reclaimed slates of the required type.

What further changes would you like to see over the next 10 years? 

I would like to have seen the last fatal accident in a mine in the UK. I believe this is achievable, and we should be there. I would also like to see an end to major injuries. I think this achievable also. Even in some of the large coal mines, a 12 month major accident free period has been achieved at a number of mines.

The secret, to my mind, is good planning, to avoid unforeseen outcomes. This involves a good recognition of the hazards present, robust risk assessments and the design and implementation of proper control measures. Procurement and proper maintenance of equipment is also important. All staff from the mine operator through management and supervisors to the workforce must be competent to do the job required of them. All these facets are the responsibility of the mine operator.

This foreseeability of outcomes also provides continuity of production with obvious economic benefits to the companies. As our activities expand to the drilling sector, I intend that the good practices of the mining industry, and the drive towards competence assurance, also extend to drilling.

Do you think there is a skills shortage in the UK mining industry? 

There is getting to be one now. Many mining companies relied on the big, nationalised employer to train more than they required – the surplus was to the advantage of UK plc. With the rundown of the large coal mines, a huge pool of experienced and skilled labour was gradually released to the other mines. This supply meant that other companies did not have to do much in the way of basic training. This supply has now dried up, so all companies are now being faced with taking essentially green labour and training them. The same comments are also true of the other big nationalised industries, such as steel, electricity generation and rail.

The Mines Inspectorate is driving competence as an issue. We are pushing employers into identifying exactly which skills are required for particular roles. 

What would you say to young people considering a career in the UK mining industry? 

It’s varied and rewarding, with huge job satisfaction. Both in industry and with the regulator, I have not had two days that were the same. Go for it, but you’ll have to be prepared to move around to get a breadth of experience.

Bob Leeming CEng, FIMMM, MMVSSA, has worked for the UK Health and Safety Executive since 1987. He has twice been elected to a Branch President – firstly, in 2000 in the old Nottingham and North Derbyshire Branch of IMinE and, secondly, in 2007 – the 150th anniversary year – of the Midland Institute of Mining Engineers.