Technological discoveries have proven to be invaluable in making everyday life easy. For the mining industry, technology has played a crucial role in improving productivity and efficiency. More importantly it has also increased the chances of achieving zero harm.  

By Dineo Phoshoko

Despite the industry’s best efforts of ensuring the safety of all employees, health and safety related incidents are inevitable due to the dangerous nature of mining. As such, the industry needs all the help it can get to improve on health and safety. Technology is one of the resources utelised by the industry to drive health and safety.

Technology’s contribution to mine health and safety

“It is very important to ensure the health and safety of our employees, and this can only be achieved by removing human intervention from the processes through automation,” says Andre Kleynhans, ROSOND safety manager. He further adds that technology eliminates accidents previously associated with manual material handling of machinery and equipment.

In terms of the practical application of technology by ROSOND, Kleynhans lists the following examples:

  • eliminating hand and finger injuries
  • Operating drill rigs in a safe zone, removing employees from danger zones
  • Operating in an area where noise, vibration, ambient temperature and dust are controlled to eliminate impact on health
“Over the past two years, South Africa has been more open minded in incorporating technology into the HSE industry, and specifically the mining industry. Covid-19 has pushed us to move even faster in this regard,” says Ruan Janse Van Rensburg, Coastal Regional Manager for KBC Health and Safety.

Influence of technology on mine safety

Health and safety are separate sides of the same coin. Explaining how technology has influenced mine safety Exxaro’s Group Manager for Safety and Health Dr Joseph Matjila explains that the company’s strategy of achieving zero harm is anchored around the safety improvement plan which is centred around five pillars. He touches on some of the pillars and how technology influences each one.

Communication is one of the pillars. “You cannot transform or lead any organisation in such an important aspect of the business without efficient and effective communication solutions.”

Matjila adds that technology has been a big enabler in getting people to communicate. “Today we’ve got various platforms that we drive our communications through.” Historically one would have to had to gather people in a venue to communicate with them. “With the developments of technology, you can access an individual at their home before they even come to the mine.”

Incredible leadership is another pillar. “The essence of it is that to achieve what we want in safety and health, our leadership has to be incredible and lead this journey from the front.” The company’s has various programmes to encourage safety from the top. One of them is Safety Leadership Day where the leadership of the organisation takes ownership of the company’s safety programme and communicates it to employees across all operations.

A day is selected where the leadership avails itself to talk about safety and reflect on the performance as well as indicate areas of concern. This is done on a virtual platform. Matjila notes that the without the help of technology this would be impossible to achieve. “That’s another demonstration of how the strategy is enabled through technology.”

Natalie Pitout, KBC Health & Safety’s Innovation Manager, explains that the company is currently exploring the virtual reality space, where different groups of people in an organisation or different companies can gather in one room and conduct a hazard identification exercise. “Different companies and people can leverage from each other’s expertise. From this exercise, KBC would be able to pull information and relay this back to the organisation,” she says.

Using technology to increase mine health & safety
Dr Joseph Matjila, Exxaro’s Group Manager for Safety and Health
Using technology to increase mine health & safety
Andre Kleynhans safety manager at ROSOND
Risk management is another pillar that has been positively influenced by technology. Various technologies in the mining industry have been developed to assist the industry in identifying safety risks. “A typical example is in our open cast mine where you have a risk of slope failures that have in the past claimed lives,” Matjila says. Matured technologies for slope stability monitoring are available to be deployed at the mines. “It scans the slope of the open pit mine and identifies if there is potential failure of the slope.” This technology also makes it possible to warn operators and gives them enough time to evacuate if they are in danger.

Another major area of concern when it comes to risk in the mining industry relates to Trackless Mobile Machinery (TMMs). There have been many incidents where accidents have occurred involving pedestrians and TMMs in both open pit and underground mines. “We now have proximity detection systems. The devices are worn by individuals, and they are also [installed] on the equipment. They help us identify if individuals are getting too close to moving equipment that could potentially harm them,” says Matjila. If individuals get too close, the equipment will automatically turn off. “That is where technology has come in as a big benefit in helping us eliminate accidents that are related to machine, people interaction.”

Fatigue is another critical area when it comes risk management in the mining industry. Matjila explains that fatigue management technologies are now available and can predict at what point a person’s level of alertness is likely to drop. These technologies provide vital information for shift bosses to know when to withdraw fatigued employees from a mine’s production area. In so doing potentially harmful incidents can be avoided.

Pitout mentions that, going forward, KBC would like to identify the risk that each person poses to a mining site. “This would enable us, and the mining industry, to mitigate risk by using specific training interventions.”

Effective management of Covid-19 and other health risks

The global Covid-19 pandemic put a huge strain on health and safety in the mining industry. South Africa’s mining industry still has a large mining labour force. This poses challenges when it comes to effectively managing Covid-19 at mine sites.

Exxaro has relied on diagnostics to assist the company with its health and wellness strategy. Referring to Covid-19, Matjila says technology has enabled experts to rapidly get an understanding about the virus.

As an example, Matjila explains that many of Exxaro’s employees from different areas in Lephalale rely on public transport, such as busses, to travel to and from work. “We realised very quickly that we had find a way of knowing who was on a particular bus, so that if there was an infection on the bus, we’d be able to trace back all the potentially exposed people and isolate them.” Tracking and tracing was made possible by technology.

Covid-19 screening is now a necessity for everyone prior to being allowed entry to most properties. Technology has advanced to the point where screening no longer needs to be done manually as there are screening digital platforms which eliminate the need for forms. In addition to being contactless, these platforms are also efficient as the screening process time is reduced.

Diagnostics has also proven to be valuable when it comes to identifying any potential health risks that need to be managed. “There are various technologies in the area of prevention,” says Matjila.  He further adds that there are various technologies that monitored a person’s vitals. Such technologies empower ordinary people with getting to understand their level of health. This enables them to make better health choices. “At the individual level, technology can be used to help you understand your state of health. You can take appropriate measures to prevent any risks.”

Moving away from misconceptions about technology

The mining industry is built on the bedrock of manual labour. As such, technological transformation in the industry has received a lukewarm response from some employees. This is due to the misconceptionthat technology will replace their jobs. “It is very important that when you transform your organisation, you do it from a basis of common understanding and common buy in and commitment,” Matjila says.

This approach implies that technological transformation is a collective journey and not something that is enforced upon employees. “We all believe [that] we need to eliminate accidents in the mining industry.” As such technology benefits both the employer and employees. “They [employees] do not see it as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to make their lives and the lives of their co-workers safe.”

Janse Van Rensburg explains that technology is still relatively new to contractors and the mining industry, which has been met with excitement. Similarly, Kleynhans says that the industry has responded positively due to the safety advantages technology brings. “Mines are technology driven to improve safety and productivity.”

Making technology inclusive and accessible for everyone

There is no doubt that technology has for the most part assisted in making life easier, in addition to improving health and safety. “Businesses are slowly evolving in order to gear up for machines to do the majority of the work on site. This would drastically lower the injury and mortality rate on mines. However, there are negatives to this as well,” says Janse Van Rensburg. One of the challenges he mentions is constantly developing and improving programmes related to technology.

Matjila also stresses the importance of being mindful of the potential barriers that come with technology and finding innovative solutions to breach those barriers. “The world that we’re living in, and the value of technology is changing at a rapid pace. It is important that we are sensitive to these changes.”

He highlights literacy levels amongst the workforce as a potential barrier that could possibly put employees at a disadvantage when it comes to reaping the benefits that come with technology. “We are at great lengths working to afford our colleagues these platforms in an easily accessible manner.” He gives an example of providing training in a visual format that would not require any reading and writing.

“We are now able to pull accurate statistics, and place people in a ‘safe’ virtual environment to get the onsite experience, without any of the risk involved. Clients are now able to use simulators instead of doing training on a mining site, where the risk is massive,” says Pitout. She adds that trends and common mistakes can be identified before a client goes onto a site. “Therefore, we are able to mitigate any risk by using the virtual sessions.”

Technology has proven to be a driving force to achieve zero harm in the mining industry. Despite some challenges, the industry has embraced technology and reaped the rewards. “It is going to be a no brainer that technology will be the way forward because of the health and safety advantages it brings to the workplace,” concludes Kleynhans.

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