Safety in mining – the digital way

The safety of mineworkers is arguably the most critical responsibility of mine owners and operators. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) and the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research (OHSMR) in the United States both focus on developing knowledge and technology advances to ensure mine workers’ well-being.   These are collaborative projects because safety is of interest to many stakeholders – mineworkers, industry labour, trade associations, academia, government and private organisations. Other countries with rich mining reserves have similar research programmes. In South Africa, this is coordinated through the Minerals Council of South Africa (formally the Chamber of Mines). In Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia and various regional Chamber of Mines provide advocacy and coordinating roles for the industry. Standards bodies also play a role. In Canada, for example, legislation requires compliance with standards published by CSA, a not-for-profit association serving industry.

This article will focus on the safety goals and trends identified by the NIOSH and how some of the emerging digital strategies are being incorporated into Adapt IT’s digital products.

NIOSH Strategic Safety Goals

The NIOSH has published its strategic goals that guide its research programme on its website. These are:

1. reduce mine workers’ risk of occupational illnesses,
2. reduce mine workers’ risk of traumatic injuries and fatalities, and
3. reduce the risk of mine disasters and improve post-disaster survivability of mineworkers.

Trends impacting on future mine safety

Mining is a fast-evolving industry, and digital technology plays a vital role in driving safety improvements. The NIOSH has identified the following trends that will continue to impact mine safety in the medium term:

  1. a series of disasters that resulted in the passage of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER Act) of 2006, which drove new technological development;
  2. a trend toward mining in more complex geological conditions;
  3. a push toward deeper mines;
  4. the continuing introduction of automation and new technologies in mining;
  5. the contraction of the U.S. coal industry and the recent growth of the aggregates industry; and
  6. changes in the demographics of the mining workforce, with a trend toward younger, less experienced workers and more contractors.

In this article, I will touch on items 4 and 6, i.e. automation and digital technologies and the demographics of the workforce.

The Mine of the Future

The Mine of the Future will have to incorporate several disruptive technologies designed to improve safety, many of which will be digital.

As ore reserves are depleted, mines will need to go deeper, be located in less accessible locations and process lower-grade materials. This means digital safety solutions need to cater to new underground scenarios, more remote monitoring, new autonomous equipment, and higher processing efficiencies.

With the retirement of the experienced workforce, a new generation of miners is also entering the industry. These younger mineworkers are very familiar with digital technologies but less experienced in safety management. This places an increased reliance on digital solutions, which will be increasingly used in the future to monitor and assist these less-experienced workers in staying safe.

Strategies for Digital Safety Systems

Specific digital strategies for the future mine might include:

Remote equipment and worker monitoring.
Heavy machinery can be monitored and remotely operated in real-time from remote control rooms. Managing the risks associated with remote industrial equipment is not trivial. Mineworkers can also be monitored with accurate location, vital biometrics (heart rate and body temperature) and other essential information.

Adapt IT Manufacturing is developing solutions for industrial customers who want to empower their front line workers and teams with intelligent, context-aware real-time information to be more productive, manage risk and work safely.

Advanced process control systems.
A move to an increased level of automation and control whereby systems will increasingly optimise process efficiencies and respond to events without human intervention.

Adapt IT is working with selected partners to bridge the gap between process automation and the related operational processes. The challenge is to ensure that the underlying automation technology does not result in people totally abdicating their safety to the system.

Advanced analytics and handling of “big data.”
Streams of data arising from instrumentation, sensors, analytical equipment, cameras etc., will all be streamed in real-time or aggregated form into “data lakes” where this data can be processed, correlated and analysed to discover trends and leading indicators predicting potential unsafe conditions or behaviours.

Adapt IT is working to leverage the Microsoft Azure IoT cloud services to collect, process and analyse data streams from field devices, equipment monitoring and certain digitally enabled processes. The flexibility of the Azure platform is allowing Adapt IT to innovate and bring new intelligent safety solutions to industrial customers.

Wearable devices that monitor safe work.
New wearable devices that ensure that the correct PPE is being used while monitoring vital signs are emerging and finding their way into the industry. In addition, augmented reality displays will allow mineworkers to receive expert support and guidance from experienced co-workers located anywhere in the world.

Adapt IT is working with the leading suppliers of personal gas monitoring devices and wearables to enhance the safety of front line workers in potentially dangerous environment.

Smart sensors that act autonomously and feed data to cloud services through the Internet, using wireless, cellular or even satellite communications.
These sensors can process large amounts of data that previously required significant processing in a distributed control system (DCS) or PLC. This shifts the processing into the field right where people are working. Environmental monitoring sensors such as temperature, humidity, explosive gases can all be located at the workplace, a modern version of the “canary in a cage” method.

Area monitors that use a mesh network to proactively detect and alert to new hazards in the working environment can be linked to Adapt IT’s control of work process managed by IntelliPERMIT.

The use of robots or exoskeletons assists people to perform physically demanding work without injury.
Cumulative and traumatic strain injuries are predominant in mining, and the OHSMR has identified this as a specific area of concern for further research.

The human factor

While these digital innovations will significantly impact mine safety, much work remains to be done to understand the human interaction with manual and automated systems. In a sense, there is a bit of a paradox because automated digital systems require a higher level of skills to work with them while at the same time removing much of the “thinking” needed for most of the physical work. The future mine worker will need to be competent in digital technology and be aware of the limitations of digital systems. This shift will require a deep understanding of how people work with technology and the new safety risks that this will introduce.

Adapt IT has been developing safety software in industry for over fifteen years. In this time we have learned that digital technology has to be more than just “user friendly”. The system must have an inherent intelligence built in that is both reliable and trustworthy. It should also augment decision making and guide the user in working safer without taking responsibility away from the worker.

New risks arising

Digital devices might themselves introduce new safety risks. For example, the fire hazards relating to Lithium-Ion batteries will need to be catered for as more and more of these batteries are embedded in sensors and other industrial devices.

Digital technology can also lead to reduced communication effectiveness – as people prefer to turn to devices to send short messages to each other, rather than the age-old technique of simply talking to your co-workers. In a safety context, good two-way communication is essential and should never be compromised in any way.

Digital networks will also introduce risks – for example, total network failure will require devices to work offline, with serious safety consequences. This risk can be a significant barrier to adopting these technologies in a critical safety application.

Adapt IT has developed mobile solutions that work both online and offline. These ensure that there is a relatively seamless transition between accessing online real time time critical information and still being safe when working offline.

Conclusion

The research work being done by the CDC, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other regional equivalent bodies is an essential contribution to the future of safe mining.

When it comes to safety, a proven track record is also vital. Adapt IT manufacturing has been working with safety-critical software systems in manufacturing and mining organisations since 1995. IntelliPERMIT, for example, is a digital safety solution that has been proven for nearly a quarter of a century in multiple industries, including mining. This real-world practical experience is being built into our products for the future.

We look forward to continuing to share our hard-earned experience by working with our customers and industry stakeholders to innovate with digital solutions to improve mine safety.

For more information

For more information on the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOHS) and the mining program strategic plan, please visit

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/researchprogram/strategicplan/MiningStrategicPlan2019-2023.html

For more information on how IntelliPERMIT and OpSUITE can help you better manage your process safety please contact the team at Adapt IT.

Picture of Gavin Halse
Gavin Halse
Gavin has over 30 years of experience in various business leadership roles and he spearheaded the original team that developed the first version of IntelliPERMIT. He has a background in process engineering, giving him a wide range of experience in industrial manufacturing and related software applications.

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