Bauxite mining and aluminium manufacturing are well established around the world and most operators have a relatively good safety track record. However, despite the many precautions taken to reduce the risk, the processes themselves are inherently hazardous and the risk of an accident cannot be totally eliminated. Good safety management systems are important, and companies are constantly looking for ways to further improve their safety.
In this article, we look briefly at the nature of the alumina refining processes, and then describe a recent project where an electronic permit to work system (IntelliPERMIT) was implemented at a bauxite mine and the associated alumina refining operation in Australia.
Bauxite mining and alumina refining
Aluminum is a unique metal which is lightweight, durable and can be recycled indefinately. It is used in many applications where its strength and light weight are useful, for example in transport and as a building material. Aluminium is made from from bauxite, a mineral found in abundance in many regions such as Australia, China and Brazil. Raw bauxite is mined and then refined into alumina (aluminum oxide) in refineries. The resulting white powder is transported to smelters around the world where the energy intensive smelting process requires a reliable source of cheap electricity. Because of the good recycling properties of aluminum and the relatively low cost of the recycling process – up to two thirds of used aluminum metal is typically collected (for example in the USA) and recycled in a smelting process.
Alumina is refined from bauxite using the Bayer process. This process involves the addition of caustic soda, a crystalisation step and a kilning step.
Owing to the inherent risks of the alumina refining process, operators work to reduce this risk as far as possible through safe design of equipment, process and work. Specific occupational health risks in the industry include whole body vibration from operating moving machinery, radioactive poisoning from naturally occurring materials in bauxite, noise induced hearing loss, heat stress and psychosocial factors associated with socio economic conditions and some remote mining settings.
Operators typically have a comprehensive safety management system that sets out the required controls for confined space entry, dropping and falling objects, isolation management, moving machinery and working at heights. A critical part of this safety management system is the permit to work and isolation management system with active verification of risk control measures.
Adapt IT’s client had a strong commitment to sustainability and responsible operations and a good safety record in their integrated alumina refining operation in Australia. A safety management system was in place and the permit to work and isolation management process was well established.
Management were looking for ways to further improve the efficiency of their permit process and improve maintenance productivity.
The permit to work system was being run on an Excel spreadsheet which had some problems in terms of the systems’ capacity to handle multiple transactions and protect the integrity of information. The client recognized that the Excel spreadsheet would need to be replaced with a formal system that met their functional requirements and also conformed to the IT governance and support requirements.
While the Excel spreadsheet system did work to a degree, it was cumbersome and difficult to audit large numbers of permits afterwards. It was also difficult to check the competence of a person about to work on the plant against records held in the companies learning management system. This cross checking was a manual process between two systems which introduced delays and was subject to human error.
On any project affecting so many people change management is very important. Senior management involvement was vital. Key users participated throughout the concept development and testing phase of the project.
By www.cape-york-australia.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
IntelliPERMIT was selected to replace the spreadsheet system
In April 2013, the client selected IntelliPERMIT for the management of permits and isolations throughout the process in their bauxite mine, the refining and the related power station; as well as in the port operations.
IntelliPERMIT had been already proven in other metals processing operations within the same group of companies and met the corporate IT requirements. Adapt IT had also established a good reputation for supporting the system in Australia, and had the necessary depth of knowledge in industrial safety. Adapt IT was also willing to show flexibility during the project to fit the solution to the existing procedures – thereby avoiding reengineering most of the established procedures and thereby not compromising safety. Where certain improvements were identified these were incorporated into new procedures.
Adapt IT’s software development team based in South Africa were able to work closely with the onsite consultants to enhance the product during the project and take advantage of specific challenges and opportunities that manifested themselves during the implementation.
IntelliPERMIT proved to be an excellent functional fit to the requirements of the entire operation, as well as being flexible enough to accommodate the established procedures. This continuity meant that disruption as a result of moving from one system to another was minimised.
To overcome the problem with checking competencies the project included building a custom interface between IntelliPERMIT and the existing learning management system. A second interface was also implemented which linked the electronic permits to the work orders in SAP.
Adapt IT provided the biometric scanners used for verifying the identity of persons transacting, thereby greatly increasing the integrity of the data and the level of controls in place.
The project used the Adapt IT project methodology in combination with the clients processes for IT system implementation. This structured approach made sure that the project was a success in all respects.
Compliance to procedures was improved without any loss of productivity in the permit process. The automated cross check with competency records sped up the process of issuing a permit and reduced errors.
The interfaces to SAP ensured that there was better coordination between the maintenance and operations roles during each job.
All the IT requirements were met and the problems associated with the spreadsheets were eliminated.
The overall awareness of safety across the site was improved, in part due to the new system and in part due to refresher training that occurred as part of the implementation.
What was learned
During the project, it became apparent how important change management is when implementing a new system. Despite the new permit to work system supporting the existing procedures end-users still needed to get familiar with the new system interface.
Over 2000 people were trained during the project. This number had been underestimated during project planning and the project had to be rescheduled to accommodate a longer training program. This training did also serve to reinforce safety awareness.
More than 1000 test permits were created by end-users during the testing phase to make sure that the system accommodated every aspect of the Clients’ process. This involvement by end users made sure the uptake was much quicker once the system went live.
Overall change management was helped by having senior management involved through the project and strong project sponsorship from the business.
Finished aluminum ingots produced after smelting
“IntelliPERMIT has introduced a much higher level of operating discipline into our Isolation and Permitting processes”.
The successful implementation of an electronic permit to work system in the bauxite mine, the alumina refinery, power station and port was the result of a strong commitment to safety in the operation, a flexible system that totally accommodated the existing procedures, good project management and strong senior sponsorship from the business. The results exceeded expectations and the overall safety awareness and disciplines on site were improved, notwithstanding the fact that the company had a good safety track record already. The replacement of an Excel based spreadsheet system with a commercially supported best in class application met all the IT requirements for integrity, governance and long-term support of the system.
For more information on this specific project and more information on our customer success stories you are welcome to contact the IntelliPERMIT team at Adapt IT.
The Aluminum Association http://www.aluminum.org/resources/electrical-faqs-and-handbooks/safety accessed on 11 December 2017
Wedstock and Arnold, Occupational and Environmental Health in the Aluminum Industry, Key points for health practitioners, May 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4131940/ accessed on 11 December 2017