SADC Mining & Construction News

South Africa: Rand-Air’s Welkom team in the Free State redefines the safety rulebook, achieving zero accidents over a 9-year service period!

Neil Bezuidenhout and his accomplished team, Barnard (Bennie) Swartz, Mathibelle Ramatisa, Moluoane Kheta and Theunis Badenhorst, proudly recorded nine years of accident-free service at a long-standing gold mine in the Free State. 

Rand-Air entered into a long-term rental contract with the gold mine in 2012. Millwrights Bennie and Theunis and operators Mathibelle and Moluoane and who have all been based at Rand-Air’s Welkom Depot for over ten years, were joined by Neil eight years ago when he was appointed as Service Supervisor. The team is responsible for the service, maintenance and repair of twenty-two GA 75 and GA 160 rental electric air compressors at the mine.

This safety milestone is certainly no small feat and can be attributed to a dedicated, committed and highly-trained team who is always ready to service and repair hire air compressors, working under extreme pressure in rigorous underground conditions, while paying close attention to safety. It takes a considerable length of time to reach the air compressors which are stationed between 1 700 and 2 000m underground. So, in addition to carrying a 1.5kg rescue pack and a 15kg tool bag, each team member also takes enough food, water and energy drinks to last for an entire shift.  

Extending an accolade to his team, Neil says, “This is a tremendous achievement and I am so proud of this phenomenal team. They, not I, are out there each and every day, working a six- to eight-hour day and night shift in the grueling underground environment of a gold mine. Hats off to this team for always going above and beyond in such difficult conditions. This is not something that can be taught. It is clear that mining is their passion and it is in their blood.”

Neil points out that attending to general repairs and maintenance underground is one thing but dealing with major breakdowns is quite another. “We recently had to replace a main drive motor on one of the compressors which took twelve-hours working underground. In order to mitigate downtime, which has serious cost implications for the mine, we work as fast as we can for as long as it takes, until the job is completed. But most importantly, we do this while ensuring that we keep ourselves and our fellow workers safe by working correctly and following all the necessary safety procedures.”  The underground conditions and high temperatures are challenging on the body and it takes a steely commitment to keep focus and concentration. To avoid heat exhaustion, team members have to move into a cooler area every fifteen to thirty minutes which Neil says just adds to the pressure because time is always of the essence.

The GA 75s and GA 160s remain permanently underground and are used to power pneumatic rock drills. The longest operating rental compressor has not seen the surface in ten years and the latest machine was installed by Rand-Air in 2019. Neil explains that these machines are an integral part of the mine process and are used mainly for projects such as life-of-mine extensions.

The machines take a hammering on the mine and have been ruggedised to be able to withstand the rigours of underground conditions. “Trackless mines operate large underground equipment and the air compressors will come off second best if they tassel with these giants,” comments Neil. Subsequently the air compressors that operate underground are enclosed in a robust steel frame complete with reflective tape; analogue meters have replaced digital meters (keeping only the temperature and pressure sensors) and panel boxes have been converted to star delta starters.

The GA 315 compressors are stationed above ground where Neil and his team work hand-in-hand with other contractors, assisting them with external projects, supplying air for building crushers, drilling holes for belt construction, etc.

Team Welkom is also responsible for servicing rental air compressors on three other Free State gold mines, a long-term rental diesel machine used for the mining of gas as well as machines used in agricultural processing applications in Kroonstad. “All machines require servicing to ensure reliable performance and prolonged uptime but even the best machines break down from time to time,” says Neil. “This is when service plays a key role and it is my firm belief that we retain the business because of the team’s consistently excellent service delivery which contributes to the mine’s sustainability.”

Regular and professional hands-on training is fundamental to the Welkom team’s exceptional safety record. It is essential to realise just how important safety is and if something happens to know what to do and how to react. This can save lives.  Neil points out that maintaining a constant focus, staying refreshed and avoiding panic in an emergency must become second nature. The team attends annual refresher courses focused on safety in both the underground and surface mine environment. Alongside annual medical training, they also undergo generic training programmes, learning what to look out for that can potentially pose a safety risk. “In addition to our own meetings, we also attend safety meetings with the mine on a weekly basis making sure that we know and follow the necessary processes and procedures in case of an emergency. This includes regular drills using escape routes and moving to refuge chambers.”

“The fact that safety is one of the four pillars at Rand-Air illustrates the high priority it is given within our organisation,” states Rand-Air Fleet Manager, Craig Swart.  “Neil and his team certainly achieved a remarkable milestone. Having a team that is so dedicated to always being conscious of how they work to ensure not only their own safety but also the safety of everyone around them adds tremendous value to the business as well as to the customer,” concludes Craig. On 27 September 2022 Rand-Air awarded Neil, Theunis, Bennie, Moluoane and Mathibelle a certificate in appreciation and acknowledgement of this deserving team’s outstanding safety record.                                                                                     

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