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Vale loses fight to skip daily cage inspections

Vale Canada Ltd. has lost an appeal of a Ministry of Labour order to do daily checks of a safety mechanism on mining shaft elevators that prevent them from free-falling in case of a malfunction.
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Vale Canada is now making daily inspection of cage dogs (backup safety measures that stop a freefalling elevator) after the Labour Board ruled its once-a-week checks are insufficient. File photo
Vale Canada Ltd. has lost an appeal of a Ministry of Labour order to do daily checks of a safety mechanism on mining shaft elevators that prevent them from free-falling in case of a malfunction.

In an Ontario Labour Board decision released April 10, Vice-Chair Matthew R. Wilson sided with United Steelworkers Local 6500, ruling that inspections of the safety catches – known as “dogs” – must be done daily.

The process is known as “chairing the cage,” and it's a procedure that mimics what happens when the elevator (cage) that carries miners underground fails and the claw-like dogs on top begin spinning, biting into the wooden timbers in the shaft and stopping the free-fall.

The danger is that the dogs can become eroded or be compromised by falling debris, meaning they wouldn't spin and attach themselves to the wooden timbers.

In their arguments, Vale said their cages have a protective “boot” on top of the cage that prevents debris from falling into the dogs. Therefore, the company argued, the weekly inspections they conduct were sufficient.

According to a transcript of the hearing, Kevin Hinds, Vale's maintenance supervisor, testified that “a visual inspection of the dogs and other parts is sufficient to detect corrosion or obstruction.

“He said it also allows the worker to inspect whether the dogs have been damaged by chunks of rock or contact with other objects,” the transcripts say.

Hinds said chairing the cages takes two employees 10 to 15 minutes and was unnecessary.

“Mr. Hinds testified that it was his opinion that chairing the cage on a daily basis did not increase the safety of the mine or the workers.”

The issue was discovered in 2013 by mine inspector Bill Gabbani, whose normally inspected mines in the Timmins area, but was temporarily assigned to help Shaun Carter, who normally inspects Garson Mine.

“Inspector Gabbani issued the order that is the subject of the appeal after he became aware that Vale did not chair the cage on a daily basis,” Wilson wrote in the hearing transcript. “He has visited more than 50 different mines. He testified that it is his responsibility to apply the regulations in a consistent manner regardless of the individual safety features of any particular mine.”

Gabbani testified that it takes about five minutes to chair the cage, and on one occasion it took just one minute, 30 seconds. While the boot in place at Garson Mine minimizes risk of debris falling into the dogs, it didn't eliminate the risk.

“Thus, in less than a week, it is possible for there to be corrosion on the dogs or seizure of the dogs caused by foreign material,” the transcripts say.

Gabbani also said all inspectors are trained to ensure cages are chaired on a daily basis.

“When it was put to Inspector Gabbani that his interpretation was not a formal Ministry (of Labour) position, Insp. Gabbani responded that it was 'an industry wide practice' and that all the mines in Timmins and Red Lake were chairing the cage on a daily basis.

And Carter, who was on another assignment the day the order was issued, testified that “if he knew that chairing the cage was not done daily, he would have issued the same order as Inspector Gabbani ... He explained that he was not aware of Vale’s practice of not chairing the cage daily. He believed it was being done.

“He testified that it takes approximately two minutes to chair the cage to allow the dogs to rotate ... As for the industry standard, Inspector Carter testified that he was not aware of a mine that did not chair the cage daily.”

Other witnesses also testified that a dog could seize in less than a week, and that daily inspections were the industry norm.

In his ruling, Wilson wrote that even if the daily inspections took 10 to 15 minutes each day, the Occupational Health and Safety Act “requires these safety catches to be examined for any defects on a daily basis.”

Vale argued that the definition of the terms in the Act didn't require daily inspections, an argument Wilson rejected, along with the company's assertion that the inspections were an unnecessary delay that didn't improve safety.

“Even if Vale’s evidence is accepted, the duration of 10 to 15 minutes to examine whether there is a defect with the safety catches is not an unreasonable amount of time,” Wilson wrote. “In the Board’s view, this duration of time is not a compelling reason to dismiss the Ministry’s position.”

Vale was ordered to continue chairing the cage on a daily basis, as it has been doing while the appeal was being heard.