Any mining house serious about maintaining or increasing production levels and improving safety statistics should keep a weather eye open writes Laura Cornish.

Rainfall and lightning, severe heat or cold, wind and even barometric pressure changes are all factors that any opencast mining operation should take into account on a monthly, daily and even hourly basis in order to help ensure that its operation runs as productively and safely as possible.

“Natures’ elements play a vital role in a mine’s daily operational tasks. The impact certain weather conditions can cause on a mine site should always be taken into account,” explains the director of Weather Intelligence Systems (WIS), Barry Gonin.

Established in 2008, WIS offers and provides holistic weather-related risk management systems to industries across South Africa, but has found the majority of its business stems from the mining sector.

The company provides industries with weather stations, web-based weather forecast portals and immediate evacuation warning systems.

Gonin estimates that in the space of four years, the company has acquired somewhere between 50% and 70% of the weather monitoring market share, with over 800 product installations in South Africa.

“About 400 of those are on mine sites across the country. Our client base includes most blue chip, large-scale mining houses in the country,” he adds.

And while WIS’s footprint is largely confined to South Africa at present, it hopes to expand this into other African territories.

“The lack of infrastructure in Africa is a big problem for the equipment we use, which relies on the Internet and communication technology. We are looking at alternative methods which will enable our systems to work with less reliance on such technologies,” Gonin mentions.

Impacting production

A mine’s annual production rates are to a large extent dependent on or influenced by maintenance schedules and forward planning, which on plant and large equipment items can require days and even weeks.

Being prepared for unusual weather patterns, such as a month of heavy rainfall, can help mines determine the best time for maintenance procedures, for example.

Through its web-based weather stations, situated on site, WIS is able to provide six-monthly seasonal forecasts within an accurate radius of an open pit. The equipment specifically monitors for rain and temperatures, making it ideal for maintenance planning.

“Blasting is another routine procedure that contributes significantly to production quotas. A lot of mining operations are located in close proximity to communities and housing settlements, which can be severely impacted by a blast if the wind is blowing in their direction on a blasting day. It can also contribute to noise impact,” Gonin explains.

Because WIS is able to provide clients with weekly weather forecasts, blasting programmes can be scheduled for the days bested suited to the activity.

Impacting safety

The ability to further provide ‘almost immediate’ forecasts means mining sites can operate with safety as their primary driving factor.

“We have provided many of our clients with WISBOBs, which are essentially warning sirens. These indicate when immediate evacuation from site should take place due to lightning strike possibilities, or even heavy rainfall, which can affect tyre traction on pit inclines and declines” Gonin explains.

Certain minerals, such as copper or iron ore, have magnetic properties and actually attract lightning, meaning the chance of being struck by lightning is high.

And while some may consider such an event highly unlikely, an event a few years ago led to a statement issued by the Department of Mineral Resources’ principal mining inspector (at the time), Max Madubane. He said: “It is recommended that at any of your opencast mining operations, slimes dams or reclamation operations, where there is the likelihood of a lightning strike, you install a lightning detection device, which would warn operating personnel of an advancing lightning storm so that preventative action can be taken.”

The weather systems themselves can also be programmed to provide warning signals should temperatures rise or fall below what is considered to be safe for human exposure over a certain timeframe.

“Monitoring how weather can impact or affect your production targets or safety statistics may be marginal, but it is often the marginal influences that make the biggest difference,” Gonin concludes.

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