Exploration drilling forms an integral part of the mining value chain and is essential when validating and understanding the geology of potential new projects. Why then is the drill operator’s safety such a neglected area, asks Laura Cornish.

The local mining industry has become largely progressive over recent years and is devoting significant time and money on improved environmental practises, uplifting and supporting surrounding communities and, most importantly, on enhancing health and safety.

“While working safely has become a key priority for the mining houses, drilling is one area where safety has been overlooked, often resulting in unnecessary accidents and serious injuries,” says Colin Rice, founder of Dicasa (the drilling industry certification authority of South Africa).

Problems that have been identified include not understanding the dynamics of the drilling apparatus, how to use it and implement it properly, and respecting the machine.

“This, however, is changing. In the past five years, mining and exploration houses have put increasing pressure on contracting companies to provide ‘proof’ that their staff are correctly and adequately trained to operate drilling equipment.” And Rice, through the Dicasa foundation, has every intention of fulfilling this industry requirement.

Because no recognised driller certification and training programmes exist in the industry, Dicasa’s intention is to develop a certification framework for all drill operators, through to supervisory level. The intention is that this will ultimately become recognised and accepted as compulsory for drill operators across the entire mining industry.

At present, all driller training in South Africa is done on an individual company basis. Many of the larger contracting companies have training facilities where their staff are trained on practical aspects of exploration and production drilling. In most cases, these facilities are used exclusively for in-house training. No independent drilling industry training facility exists and, as a consequence, no industry accepted competency standards exist.

In an effort to address this situation, the National Diploma: Drilling Practice was designed and implemented in 1989 by the South African Drilling Association. Rice chaired the committee responsible for the design of the programme, the generation of course material and its implementation at what was then Technikon SA.
The diploma was aimed specifically at qualifying supervisors and junior managers in the industry and to attract new entrants to the industry. For a number of reasons, interest in the qualification declined and it is no longer offered.

Dicasa was formed to carry out the work Rice started implementing decades ago.

“The objectives of Dicasa are far wider than merely certifying that staff are competent to operate equipment. We believe that the upliftment of the industry is critical to our survival and development, and this is dependent upon making the industry an attractive one to be employed in. The driller and assistant drillers are a backbone of the industry and many have worked in the industry for many, many years, yet they have no recognition whatsoever, no defined career path and very little opportunity to move between specialisations. It is Dicasa’s primary objective to address this unacceptable situation.”
Is Dicasa making progress and reaching its objectives?

Rice has been working on developing a drilling certification framework through Dicasa since early 2010.

“Interestingly, the mining houses have been more proactive in this area and have become the driving force, as opposed to the drilling contractors,” Rice continues.

In June last year, Dicasa held a meeting with 14 different mining companies which indicated that a drilling standard is absolutely necessary to improve safety and standardise operational procedures.

Kumba Iron Ore has been particularly responsive, and we now have a well-researched and refined document that I hope to have certified with the Mining Qualifications Authority, which has listed drilling practises as a scarce skills area.” Rice notes. De Beers and Lonmin are even looking at incorporating the standards document into their tender forms.

For now, Dicasa holds about four or five training courses every year, with about 30 people attending each course.

Sidebar: The certification framework has identified 10 distinct drilling specialisations:

  • diamond core drilling – surface, medium – hydraulic swivel-head
  • diamond core drilling – surface, medium – longstroke
  • diamond core drilling – surface, deep
  • diamond core drilling – underground, electro hydraulic
  • diamond core drilling – underground, pneumatic
  • geotechnical investigations
  • rotary drilling – blasthole
  • percussion drilling – blasthole
  • rotary percussion and dual tube reverse circulation drilling
  • raisebore drilling.

Despite the fact that the drilling industry in South Africa is very large and strategically very important, no nationally recognised drilling qualification(s) currently exist in the NQF structure and so a person with a lifetime of experience has no formal recognition of his skills, no clear career path and no mechanism to stretch his level of understanding of the processes that he is involved in. As is the case with many other industries in South Africa, the drilling industry is “greying” and the attraction of new entrants to the industry is critically important.

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