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The mining industry produces many hazardous workplace issues to contend with. Although significant improvements have been made over the last decade, mining still has one of the highest rates of workplace injuries and fatalities of any Australian industry.

In Australia, mining ranks fifth in worker fatalities, with 4.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers. This is down from 12.4 worker fatalities from 100,000 workers in 2003. This improvement over a short period of time is promising to see but the goal for the industry is to become a fatality free workplace that employees have complete confidence in.

To further combat exposure to danger, what technologies are being developed? What methods are available to ensure a safer industry.

Industry Fatality Rates, Australia 2020

Inherent risks associated with the mining industry

The first step to resolving hazards is understanding what areas need to be addressed and ways in which to better combat these risks. The largest risks associated with mining workplaces include:

Physical stress
Physical stresses on the body, manual handling and musculoskeletal conditions accounted for 39% of worker compensation claims.

Falls from a height, slipping and tripping due to uneven surfaces or dangerous terrain is a large proponent of mining-based workplace injuries.

Machinery injuries
Being stuck by a moving object or machinery accounts for up to 25% of worker compensation claims. Working with high-risk machinery and plant equipment, which accounted for 18% of worker compensation claims.

Other risks that miners face in the workplace include:
  • Underground operating conditions where thermal stress, air pressure and ventilation hazards exist
  • Shaft collapses and rock shifts
  • Spontaneous combustions and gas outburst
Moving towards zero harm

To achieve a zero-harm outcome, the mining industry needs to embrace a new direction in which safety is the first priority. The traditional mining mentality towards workplace safety has been aimed at making work areas ‘less dangerous’ by improving visibility, internal controls, protective clothing, implementing safety logs and recurring inspections. These are all excellent initiatives for enhancing workplace safety, however they simply aren’t thorough enough goals to reach a zero-harm environment.

In order to progress past this way of thinking, the industry should adopt a more integrated and predictive approach. This type of methodology revolves around the mantra of being able to prevent incidents before they happen, effectively mitigating risks completely.

To mitigate dangers completely, what approaches can companies take to achieve this predictive strategy?

1. Wearable technology

As a relatively new safety apparatus that was fast tracked due to COVID-19, wearable devices are becoming a common asset among mining workforces in Australia. Wearables are clothing or accessories that incorporate advanced electronic technologies that both passively and actively track the user and their surroundings. The use of these wearables has far reaching potential as they can be used in a variety of ways such as; · Detecting environmental conditions
· Monitoring air quality
· Location of workers
· Tracking fatigue levels – especially truck and heavy equipment operators

There are a variety of wearable technologies that can offer multiple safety benefits.

Smart wrist wearables

Smart wrist wearables can make a huge impact on individual safety in the mining industry. Wrist wearables use IoT (Internet of Things) or RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology to track workers’ activity around a mine site. Should a worker find themselves in an emergency, they can activate a distress signal from their device. Site leaders can also ensure employees don’t accidentally stray into unsafe areas by warning them through their devices.

Smart clothing

Smart clothing can be used to monitor the ‘human thermal environment’, which can become very unpredictable in underground mining. For the human body to be in a thermal comfort zone, three parameters need to be met; sweat rate, heat balance and mean skin temperatures. Continuously tracking a mining workers’ vitals, body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate, can be hugely beneficial to maintain health and safety standards through predictive analysis.

Smart Vest

Smart glasses/virtual reality

Smart glasses and VR headsets could offer a range of useful, cost and time effective capabilities whilst also improving the overall safety of mining operations. These wearables allow workers to ‘see’ or visualise machinery parts and inspect components that require repair through augmented reality. VR is also a useful tool for educating workers by using a virtual mine as a form of training ground that allows for numerous real-world situations to be practiced, meaning better preparation for miners.

Smart helmets

Safety helmets have been a mainstay for the welfare of miners for decades. Improvements to helmets exist, allowing for safety to be considerably improved, mainly from a predictive standpoint. Smart helmets, connected with special cameras and sensors, have the ability to detect dangerous gases, increasing heat levels and offer collision avoidance capabilities. Fatigue is another element that can be monitored which is crucial, as fatigue contributes 60-70% to human error incidents.

2. Automation & robotics

Technologies have brought a new standard of safety to mines, with efficiency in operations also being achieved. Robots and automated machinery have taken over the riskier roles that were once only capable by humans – from drilling and self-driving trucks to earth haulage and other processes. By removing humans from these hazardous environments, safety can significantly increase along with increased productivity.

Rio Tinto for instance has incorporated autonomous trucks which has made the workplace considerably safer but also reduced fuel usage by 13% and improved environmental performance by 13% too.

3. 3D modeling & drone scanning

As digital tools become more advanced, so too does the information that is harnessed from these innovations. Mining companies can use 3D modelling programs to create accurate underground diagrams where exploration and site mapping is due to take place – usually in hard-to-reach places that are highly risky for human workers.

Drones also offer a great deal of promise when it comes to site safety as they can image vast areas of a mine which identifies areas of risk and hazard. This can then be relayed to ground crews before further exploration progresses, thereby preventing potential safety issues.

4. Utilising data
As more data becomes available to mining operators, the ability to predict and detect hazards earlier becomes more likely. IoT technology is experiencing constant innovation where physical objects or “things” are embedded with sensors, software and other technologies in order to monitor and exchange data. Whether it be mining workers or machinery assets, data is always being captured and translated into ways that can predict issues or hazards before they occur. This can be seen in ways such as;
  • Detecting potentially hazardous situations and mitigating the situation effectively
  • Monitoring site equipment and their integrity to prevent catastrophic failure and injury
  • Identify patterns and performance issues that may indicate an imminent accident by a worker
A recent survey found that 40% of large mining companies now believe that IoT will greatly help improve the health, safety and wellbeing of mining employees and general site welfare.

Pickles Mining safety technology

At Pickles, we take our workplace health and safety seriously, which is why we have implemented an intelligence system called Skytrust which drives performance and provides situational awareness data for our day-to-day activities.

Steve Wall, General Manager of Pickles Mining discussed the progrssive implications of Skytrust:

“Pickles Mining uses Skytrust to manage safety in real-time for all staff nationally. Skytrust is a cloud-based integrated management system providing safety, environment, inductions, assets, tool box talks and plant management approach to our organisation’s compliance and due diligence across all aspects of business. Practices such as a stringent contractor management system, a dedicated Workplace Health & Safety team, and regular third-party external audits are integrated across all sites and branches to ensure the highest safety standards are maintained across the country.”

Digital technology can have a profound impact on the wellbeing and safety of workers within the mining industry. For the industry to achieve net zero harm, companies will need to invest in these innovative solutions which are not only showing reductions in workplace accidents but also seem to be having a profound effect on operational efficiency which is always a bonus for a company’s bottom line.

27 Feb