Rio Tinto Yarwun is a world-class alumina refinery situated north-west of Gladstone in central Queensland. Construction began in 2002 and the first shipment of alumina followed in late 2004. The refinery was the first greenfield refinery built in the western world in 20 years.
Aluminium ore (bauxite) is transported from Rio Tinto’s mining operations in Weipa on Western Cape York and processed into alumina at the Yarwun refinery.
The commitment to the safety of employees and contractors and the protection of the environment are integral to the values of the Rio Tinto’s operations.
The refinery operates under the principle ‘The Goal is Zero’, which envisions creating a workplace free from incidents and injuries. The Yarwun refinery currently employs around 550 people.
One workplace threat identified in the Rio Tinto health & safety and environment manifest is the potential for cloud-to-ground lightning strikes at the refinery site.
Lightning is one of the most dangerous and frequently encountered weather hazards in Australia. There are on average 5-10 deaths and over 100 severe injuries caused by lightning in Australia year-on-year. Lighting can severely harm or take the lives of workers and has the potential to disrupt operations through damage to communications and plant infrastructure, fire and ignition risks, and downtime on sites until the lightning threat has passed.
The Rio Tinto Emergency Action Plan includes a lightning safety protocol that has been aligned with the lightning detection and alerting services provided to Rio Tinto by MetraWeather (Australia) Pty Ltd.
MetraWeather is a specialist global weather insights company and provider of professional meteorological and lightning awareness programmes to the transport, media, industrial, and energy sectors.
MetraWeather is backed by the scientific and meteorological expertise of parent company, MetService, the WMO-accredited New Zealand national meteorological service.
In Australia, MetraWeather partners with Florida, USA headquartered TOA Systems Inc., the pre-eminent manufacturer of integrated lightning networks and warning systems. Over the past 10 years, TOA Systems has installed more than 600 lightning location sensors in over 50 countries. It owns and operates the Australian Global Positioning and Tracking Systems Pty. Ltd. (GPATS) network incorporating over 100 sensors. MetraWeather uses the data derived from GPATS in its proximity alerting services.
MetraWeather provides dashboards to Rio Tinto that display:
- Real-time lightning observations
- Forecast lightning zones expected over the following hour
- Enhanced near real-time rain radar
- Accumulated hourly and 24-hourly rainfall
- Current imagery from the Himawari 8 satellite
- Visual site-specific lightning proximity alerts
In conjunction with the dashboards, MetraWeather also provides Rio Tinto with email and SMS SmartAlerts to a nominated directory of employees advising of lightning proximity to specified site latitudes, longitudes within a radii of 10 kilometres.
These alerts form the basis of a cease work instruction and site evacuations to predetermined ‘safe’ sites. The same communication channels also advise employees when the lightning threat has passed and it is safe to return to work.
The accuracy of the observations of lightning strikes and the trust placed in the detection network and communications channels mean that Rio Tinto has been able to not only successfully safeguard its workforce, but has also been able to reduce stand-down time from an average of 4 hours to an average of just 20 minutes.
This has been in large part due to the work that Sam (Samantha) Van der Erf, Rio Tinto’s Specialist Site Control & Health manager and her team onsite at Yarwun have put into the HS&E processes linked to the alerting.
“We have seen not only productivity gains when lightning events have disrupted production at the refinery, but also improved efficiencies and increased output at the site.
“There is no guesswork now about the likelihood of further lightning strikes. Our staff and management are confident of their safety and that the lightning threat is being carefully managed based on clear and accurate scientific monitoring with built-in redundancy and proven reporting protocols,” says Sam.
The lightning programme implemented by Rio Tinto is testimony to the deployment of science-based solutions and communications channels that are ensuring a workplace free from incidents and injuries.