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Country Reports
Injuries that Occur in Humanitarian Demining, Landmine Monitor Report 2000
LM Report 2000 Full Report   Executive Summary   Key Findings   Key Developments   Translated Country Reports

Injuries that Occur in Humanitarian Demining

By Andy Smith

Most of the author’s recent research has been dedicated to devising practical improvements for deminers. To this end, the author pioneered visor production in Africa under a charitable Technology Transfer programme in 1997, added body armour aprons to that work in 1998, and completed a programme to prove and establish African production of improved protective equipment and safer hand tools in June 2000. In order to remain genuinely independent, the author takes no profit from the exploitation of his practical designs. The following paper draws on information derived from my field research in demining over the past six years, and from the incident data in the AVS Database of Demining Incident Victims (DDIV). The DDIV resulted from work I carried out in 1998 and 1999 for the US DoD as part of their CECOM NVESD Humanitarian Demining research initiative. It covers demining incidents that occurred in Angola, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Kosovo, Cambodia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Laos, and Zimbabwe.

The threat to deminers at work

Opinions of risk vary, but the detail in the DDIV allows a relatively objective assessment by providing a record of the activities and the mines that have constituted the greatest risk in the past. For example, it has been said that there is a greater risk when demining in areas with minimum metal AP blast mines than in areas where the mines are easier to detect. This commonsense view is not confirmed by the evidence. In the vast majority of demining “missed-mine” incidents, the mine was a PMN, PMN-2 or PPM-2, all of which have a large metal content.

Very simply, in terms of mines causing deaths in demining, bounding (jumping) fragmentation mines head the list, followed by AP blast mines, then larger mines, IEDs and UXO. Bounding fragmentation mines are only a very small proportion of the mines found in any theatre and cause a hugely disproportionate number of fatalities at close range. Blast mines are by far the most common mines found in any theatre (excluding Laos). Incidents with blast mines are rarely fatal, and when they are, the incident unusually involved handling a device, stepping on a device while squatting over it, or falling onto a device. Incidents with AT mines are rare, but have invariably killed the deminer initiating the mine.

Areas of the body at risk

In the DDIV, injuries are classed as either Severe or Minor. Injuries likely to be life threatening, to require surgery or to result in permanent disability are rated as Severe. All others are rated as Minor. This distinction is for convenience and is not intended to reflect on the discomfort and/or hardship associated with the injury.

For the whole database (covering all device types), the following injuries occur:

Head & neck = 101 severe injuries

Upper limb = 106 severe injuries

Lower limb = 130 severe injuries

Trunk = 42 severe injuries

The difference between the threat to the head and upper limbs is that between 101 and 106, which is not significant. The jump to 130 for the lower limb injury may be significant, and illustrates that the Missed-mine risk is real and generally results in a severe injury. The large drop to 40 for trunk/body injury is also significant, illustrating clearly that the main torso is not at threat to the same degree as the limbs and the head.

The single most frequent area of severely disabling injury is to the eyesight of deminers, which can be lost when no other significant injury occurs.

Activity at time of risk

The most common activity at the time of an incident is “excavation”. An "excavation incident" occurs while a deminer is investigating a detector reading or digging in a suspect area with a prodder, trowel, bayonet, pick, hoe or shovel. Severe injuries usually occur when the tool is very short or breaks up in the blast. Where the tool is well designed and the deminer’s face is protected, severe injuries do not occur.

Excavation often has to take place in hard ground. Sometimes water is used to soften the surface, but the quantities needed to make a real difference on most soils are rarely available and the water often only serves to keep the dust down. Since excavation must be done, the risk of detonating a particular sensitive or tilted device is often considered to be unavoidable.

But if some excavation incidents are unavoidable, some excavation techniques are particularly dangerous, such as using a pick or a shovel. These are not “approved” tools but the fact that they were used indicates a supervisory lapse. All deminers are, after all, supposedly supervised and appropriate supervision could have prevented these incidents.

Some excavation tools increase the severity of injury when an incident occurs. When a short AK bayonet is used to chip away at hard ground, the user’s hand is so close to any detonation that he has a high risk of severe injury. In some cases, the tool itself breaks up and the blade or shards of the handle hit the deminer. When they hit him in the face, they can kill. The deminer does not choose his tools. The organization that issues him with tooling so inappropriate that it exacerbates injury in an unavoidable incident is at fault.

The next most common activity is treading on a “Missed-mine”. A missed-mine incident occurs when a victim initiates a device that he or other members of the survey or demining group failed to locate during their normal work and which consequently was in an area that the demining group considered safe. Most professionals in the industry agree that a missed-mine indicates a lapse in the system: either the deminers did not apply the system properly (so were poorly supervised) or the clearance system itself was inadequate. The professionals’ view is supported by the evidence in the DDIV which indicates that most missed-mine incidents involved mines that were readily detectable with the detectors used – if in good working order.

The next most common activity is “handling”. A "handling incident" occurs when the victim was holding the device immediately prior to the detonation whether this was for examination, disarming or another purpose. Many groups reject render-safe procedures and destroy all finds in-situ. This is the UN view, but not one held by all. A few groups routinely disarm, using a “pulling” technique first to ensure that the device has not been booby-trapped. One commercial group finding mines in very large numbers (300 a day) uses a new technique to pick-up the mines remotely and place them together for destruction in pits. This saves them a good deal of time and the cost of multiple demolition charges.

The next most common incident is classed as “victim inattention” – or “out-to-lunch”. A "victim inattention" incident occurs when the victim behaves in a manner that is apparently thoughtless, such as stepping outside the cleared area, or not looking where he was going. In some cases, the victim was a supervisor and this may be taken to imply poor selection or training. In some cases the supervisor should have noticed that the victim was sick (in one case “drunk”) and prevented his working.

This paper is too short to provide detailed argument of some of the issues under discussion. I suggest readers refer to the DDIV itself and make their own informed judgment on any contentious issue. The DDIV is available on CD. Contact avs@landmines.demon.co.uk