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Coal-face safety is no longer the pits

Avoiding danger comes first in modern mines where workers told that 'safety is in their hands', reports Kevin Berry.

There used to be a brutal incentive to work hard at coalfield secondary schools - get on with it or you'll end up down the pit!

John Davies, human resources development manager at RJB Mining, claims that this negative attitude has largely disappeared. Working underground is much safer and healthier than it was, owing to new training programmes, he says. After years of decline, with closures and redundancies, the coal industry now has a happier outlook. The power generators are buying coal and RJB Mining, formed when the coal industry privatised, is busily recruiting.

"We have trainability tests, interviews and colliery visits before we recruit so there is a negligible drop-out rate. People are attracted by the flexible hours, the pay and also the welfare and recreation side," says Davies.

At Riccall colliery, in Yorkshire's Selby coalfield, two groups of trainees are in class: apprentice engineers in the 16 to 19 age-range and older mine-workers. The mineworkers are on an induction course that the apprentices will take later on.

Safety awareness is key to the induction and John Davies believes that no comparable industry pays as much attention to it. RJB Mining uses many contract companies who must send their staff on the course.

The mining trainees will spend 20 days in the classroom and 20 days at collieries. They can work at the coal face or choose to train for semi-skilled jobs such as conveyor-belt maintenance and locomotive driving. If the trainee is a returning miner, and he has specialised experience, there is a refresher programme at an RJB training centre, followed by close personal supervision with an instructor. Every aspect of training is closely documented, with periodic refresher courses.

"Our engineer apprentices must have four GCSE certificates at grade C or above," says Davies. "Maths an one science are essential or they would be struggling."

The engineers spend part of their apprenticeship at the Waterdale campus of Doncaster College. They work towards a national certificate in either mining mechanical or mining electrical, and complete requirements for NVQ levels 2 and 3 in engineering.

The induction course includes a day of learning First Aid. Nick Clarke, RJB's training and development manager, adds:"I have a safety engineer who asks them, 'do you expect to be injured?' And they say yes they do, but then he challenges that notion. He tells them that safety is in their hands.

"The inevitability of an accident is something that belongs in the past. We have had two years without a fatality, some of our pits have reported no major injuries in the past four years, but we are not complacent.

"All the jobs undergrounds are very carefully and constantly monitored. Safety isn't just a compensation issue anymore, accidents are bad news because they affect everybody down the mine - everything has to stop."

Former miner Keith Middlebrook is glad to be returning to his old job, having been laid off after 14 years of working on conveyor belts. Despite his previous experience he must still complete the induction, as the safety requirements will be new to him.

"I'm going back into belt maintenance," Keith explains. "It's a proper job - a real, hands-on job. I'm proud to be a miner again and I've only been back three weeks. The money is good and there's a real community feeling. The safety aspect has come on a lot more since I last worked down the pit. They tend to stand back and look at the danger now, assessing it before jumping in."

Former Royal Marine Lee Cox is from a mining family. He appreciates the responsibility and status his qualifications as an electrical engineer will give him. "It's a good apprenticeship," says Lee. "You get respect because the lads know that their lives are in your hands."

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