Explosives Security In Mining

By Darren Bracey.

The terrorist attacks in the US in 2001 have, to this day, continued to have a profound effect on a number of industries across the world. In particular, the airline industry would be seen as having the most visible security measures introduced across the board. For any airline traveller post September 11, 2001, the massive increase in security became immediately evident as they experienced delays and hurdles to cross before even entering many airports. Another industry that has been affected, but is not so visible to the outsider, is mining. Legislative changes, and stricter controls placed on mining activities involving explosives, have seen a fundamental shift in the overall management of explosives on mine sites. As an industry, the legislative controls now involved in managing the movement and handling of explosives, as well as the control of personnel with access to explosives, has grown substantially.

Since they were first introduced to the Australian gold mines in the 1860s, explosives have emerged as one of modern mining’s most essential and effective tools. The use of explosives is vast, about a million tonnes are used each year in Queensland alone and mining accounts for the majority. As the mining industry is the largest user of explosives in the country, one can easily understand how, in the post-9/11 era, the regulation that comes with managing, storing, transporting and using such vast quantities of explosives can be quite onerous on the operation.

Ammonium Nitrate, which was originally better known for its use as a fertiliser, was declared an explosive in Queensland in 2004, requiring strict controls on the purchase and use of what is now a security sensitive product. In reality, about five per cent of the total annual Ammonium Nitrate production in Australia is used as fertiliser with the remaining 95 per cent being used as an explosive. And with the expected expansion of mining operations continuing across Australia, this will see a large increase in the quantities being produced and used over the next decade. The Queensland Government forecasts expect the number of shotfirers, drillers and miners to increase from approximately 12,000 in 2010 to 30,000 by 2030.

There are many types of explosives used in the mining industry. The most common types of explosives that may be used include:

  • ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil )
  • Ammonium Nitrate Emulsion
  • detonating cord
  • detonators
  • primers / cast boosters

Public expectations, in conjunction with more stringent requirements arising from reviews of existing legislation, have necessitated the constant tightening of procedures within the industry. National and international geopolitical situations are forever changing, with increases in threats from political, religious and so called ‘rogue nations’ remaining an ever present threat to Australia’s national security. However, in recent years, domestic security organisations have recognised that the largest threat to Australian security lies not with the well-known international terrorist organisations but rather, from home-grown domestic threats. There have been several cases related directly to workers on mine sites that have used stolen explosives and/or their expertise in the use of explosives for criminal purposes. Organised criminal gangs, disgruntled or isolated aggrieved individuals are more likely to be the types of persons involved in a domestic attack in Australia and therefore pose the highest risk. Fortunately, the number of terror attacks committed on Australian soil has, to date, been relatively low with five incidents that might be classed as terrorist activities occurring since the early 1970s. Of course, this does not include Australian citizens who have been killed or wounded in overseas attacks such as the bombings in Bali and at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the two largest attacks on Australian citizens in recent times.

There is a ‘cradle to the grave’ philosophy with regard to the management of explosives on a mine site. This process begins with strict authorisation controls around the approval of personnel on the site who may or may not handle and/or use the products. This authorisation extends to any personnel involved in the process right from purchasing personnel to miners using the product at the mine face. Legislative requirements entail verifying quantities every time explosives change hands. Those persons are appointed by the operation to be accountable for the management of explosives but only after passing through a vetting process and being deemed an acceptable person. This vetting method includes undertaking Police checks on the person to ensure they are considered a fit and proper person to be responsible for the handling of and use of explosives on that mine site, i.e. they pose a low risk. Background checks include criminal history and other high risk offences (domestic violence, firearm related offences, etc) that may preclude a person from being allowed to handle explosives. Ensuring that only fit and proper personnel are granted access can be further complicated with the current mobility of the mining workforce, with many miners moving frequently and changing roles both intra and interstate as there is no requirement for ongoing suitability checks on persons. The monitoring of an authority holder or their employees is not required under the legislation after the authority has been granted, leaving open the risk that a person who is authorised has a change in circumstances which may cause that person to fail the suitability test at a later date. At present, the checks are a state-based process. However, a review which is currently underway may see the introduction of changes requiring such checks be undertaken at Federal and International levels. This review of the current legislation comes about as a result of regulatory reforms initiated by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Some of the suggestions on the table include checks related to Politically Motivated Violence which, at present, are not a requirement under the current legislation.

Mine personnel are trained in the safe use and handling of a wide range of explosives from detonators to large quantities of security sensitive ammonium nitrate. The use of explosive at a mine site can be measured in the tonnes per week and month, in particular their use of ammonium nitrate. Furthermore, the quantities of detonators, detonator cord, boosters and the like, stored and used on mine sites is significant. Controlling and accounting for this stock is at all times the mine’s responsibility.

The use of explosives in the mining industry varies from mine to mine and is dependent on many aspects including the type and location of a particular operation. What does not change is the expectation under the current legislation that strict controls will be enforced with regard to the transport, storage and use of these products. With a current review being undertaken of the existing legislation, it appears that further tightening of the management will likely take place in the near future. Mining in Australia though can be seen as a leader in the many areas in relation to the management of these types of risks, due mostly the current State Government risk-based legislative frameworks. Safety and health in the industry, although not perfect, has seen vast improvements year on year, thanks in part to stringent regulatory conditions and proactive mining regulators. Overall and above the normal regulatory requirements, a major concern for any operation in today’s global economy are adverse organisational and reputational factors that would occur should their company be linked to a major incident, in particular one that has the potential to cause harm to large numbers of people outside of their control. Serious incidents directly related to companies can have a devastating effect on share prices, reducing company value and long-term viability in attracting investors and ultimately staying in business.

The management of explosives, although not entirely visible to outsiders of mining, is yet another challenge the industry has had to face in an ever-changing regulatory, social and political environment post September 11, 2001.


Darren Bracey is the Emergency And Protective Services Superintendent for the Xstrata Copper’s North Queensland Operations. This role involves the management of both electronic and physical security services, emergency response and crisis management systems across Xstrata Copper’s North Queensland assets. These assets include both open cut, underground and heavy plant areas from Mount Isa to the Townsville area. Darren has held this current position for 8 years after working in various Safety and Emergency roles across the Mount Isa Mines site. Darren has more than 20 years’ experience in the mining industry, having worked in both field and management positions.