Across the world, improving worker safety in mining is a key target. And, while there have been some major successes in terms of reducing injuries and deaths, the very nature of mining activity presents huge challenges, both physical and cultural.
Canada-based CAE Mining claims to be the first simulator supplier in the mining industry with technology that has been certified to the global Type 7 standard for simulator sophistication and quality that integrates movement, graphics and realistic machine response with millisecond accuracy. Pictured here is the company’s Terra simulator system.
In public perception, mining still has an unwelcome reputation when it comes to worker safety. And, to be fair, in some parts of the world—where regulatory oversight is lax or where artisanal mining provides an economic lifeline—that reputation is probably justified. However, widely reported incidents in such places are often “flash” news items, soon to be superseded by more pressing stories with no more than a cursory explanation of the occurrence and the toll.
All of which does a great disservice to companies large and small for whom safety is not only a key concern, but is also culturally inbuilt. To put it bluntly, any serious accident carries substantial economic as well as personal costs, and the days when mine workers could be regarded as expendable are long gone. It is now simply unacceptable for mines to be run without providing appropriate protection for their staff, in terms of equipment and through training in how to use it safely and effectively.
No one will dispute that mining is by its very nature a higher risk occupation than, say, working in a factory or in an office. The same can be said for construction, farming, deep-sea fishing and other industries where there is a greater level of physical input in conditions that need participants to have better risk-management skills. Accident statistics from around the world confirm this categorically.
So, is it realistic to expect mining to achieve a goal of being a “zero-harm” industry? Certainly there have been huge improvements in terms of mechanization to remove the individual from more hazardous workplaces, yet the very nature of mining is still one that often needs hard, physical personal input coupled with an innate understanding of the working environment that can only be won through long experience.
And here, of course, is the rub. The mining workforce worldwide is getting older as fewer young people are attracted to join. A recent report from the U.S. National Research Council pointed out that in 2010 the median age for workers in the U.S. metal-mining industry was 43.4 years, while that of coal miners was even higher, at 46.4 years. For comparison, the report noted, the median age for all U.S. workers was then 42 years. Of even greater concern, though, was that for both mining sectors the median age has been rising, demonstrating clearly that the workforce is top-heavy with older people, that there is a shortage of “middle-age” miners, and that few young people are looking to mining as a career.
There is, of course, a knock-on effect to this. Which are the age groups most likely to be involved in accidents at work? The old and the young; the old because they are physically less able to do demanding work, and the young because they are inexperienced and have not yet learned the management skills needed to minimize risk in the working environment.
Creating a Safety Culture
Many safety systems have been developed over the years, with the common theme of firstly making the individual aware of the potential hazards he or she faces, and then teaching ways of reducing the risk involved to an acceptable level. However, this then begs the question—where safety is concerned, what is acceptable?
In a paper presented at the 35th International Conference of Safety in Mines Research Institutes (ICSMRI), held last October in London, Helmut Ehnes (secretary-general of the mining industry sector of the German-based organization, the International Social Security Association) provided the example of “Vision Zero.” Partly based on the successes achieved by the explosives company, DuPont, starting in the early 1800s, this is “a prevention strategy for a safe future without fatal or serious accidents,” he said. “By focusing on severe and fatal accidents, its application increases the level of safety and health overall.”
To put this into context, Ehnes noted that although mining only constitutes 1% of the world’s workforce, it accounts for 8% of annual occupational fatalities. Major implications of this include, he said:
- Huge losses of productivity and extremely high costs;
- Big problems with quality control;
- A lack of motivation where working conditions are unsafe; and
- Poor public perception of mining in general, and for individual companies specifically.
The cost to a company of a poor safety record can go far beyond the immediate cost involved in sorting out an incident. It may appear cynical to suggest so, but in times like the present, when financing is challenging to obtain, this may be even more relevant than during commodity booms. Investors do not want to be associated with companies whose approach to safety appears to lag industry standards; this message is now widely understood at corporate board level.
Take the example of Anglo Platinum, which in mid-2007 closed its Rustenburg operations for a week in response to a rise in the number of fatalities there. The company’s then CEO, Ralph Havenstein, said, “Employee safety is our highest priority and where extreme steps are necessary, we will not hesitate to take action. This intervention will greatly support the ongoing initiatives already in place to assist us in reaching our objective of zero harm.”
At the time, Anglo Platinum was well into implementing a program aimed at achieving a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths and injuries at its operations. This strategy had four main thrusts—behavioral solutions, technical solutions, labor solutions and re-resourcing the company’s safety and sustainable development function. The focus on behavioral solutions included training all management and supervisor levels in safety principles, starting with the zero mindset—the belief that all injuries are preventable and that all are responsible, Anglo Platinum stated.
According to Ehnes, the ISSA has set out seven points for making mining safer:
- Leadership and commitment;
- Identifying hazards and risks;
- Setting safety and health targets;
- Ensuring a safe system;
- Using safe and healthy technology;
- Controlling and improving the qualifications and knowledge of the workforce; and
- Investing in employee motivation, since employees are a company’s most valuable asset.
Efficient accident prevention will increase productivity beyond any investment involved, Ehnes stated.
What are the Real Costs?
Last year, L’Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST) produced a report in which it estimated the cost of occupational injuries in the mining industry. Founded in 1980, the IRSST focuses on the mining sector in the Canadian province of Québec. Although the industry employs only a small proportion of Québec’s workforce, it accounts for a disproportionately high number of fatalities, and as such can be seen as a reflection of the industry in the wider world.
Taking a sample year (2006 in this case), the IRSST calculated that the cost of mining-sector occupational injuries in the province totaled nearly C$130 million, comprising both financial (productivity losses, medical costs, lost pay and so on) and human costs. Out of the total, financial costs came to around C$50 million, of which companies absorbed nearly two-thirds, while workers and communities were more affected by human costs.
Looking at the individual components that made up the C$130 million, human costs accounted for 62% of the total, while productivity losses added a further 28%. Medical, salary and administrative costs, around 3% each of the total, were the other main inputs, while transport (moving the injured from often remote sites to medical facilities) and legal costs made up most of the remainder. Putting an actual figure on individual cases is difficult, the organization admitted, since data are incomplete, but it estimates that a cost of not far short of C$100,000 per occupational injury is realistic. The proviso is that accident costs are markedly lower than those related to long-term occupation health issues, such as those incurred by workers in Québec’s asbestos-production industry. Looking at accident-related fatalities specifically, the cost rises to C$3 million per incident, with human costs by far the larger component.
In terms of lost time, the IRSST found that the most common occupational injuries were sprains and strains. Average lost time: 60 days. Average cost per incident: more than C$32,000—and that is relating to a relatively minor condition by comparison. Get involved in a transport accident, and the bill to the worker, the company and the community is likely to be more than C$200,000.
And the problem does not necessarily go away when a worker returns after an injury. The IRSST’s research suggests that the lack of practice during time off can result in a worker being less productive, at least until he or she gets back “up to speed,” and in some cases a worker may chose to go back to a different job that does not pay as well.
Recent introductions from one of the long-standing innovators in the mining equipment market, Immersive Technologies, have included new simulators for Caterpillar mining shovels and for motor graders. Immersive now has simulator modules at work in 35 countries, according to the company.
Safety, Profit or Both?
In the abstract of a paper that she was unfortunately unable to present at the London conference, Natasha Kendall from the Australian firm, Innovation Consulting, pointed out that, “addressing the commercial implications of safety is often considered taboo within the mining safety circle with the seeming exclusivity of safety or profit consistently at odds with each other.
“Management’s commercial interest can provide complimentary duality to that of the safety department if commercial safety risk is communicated successfully,” she said, adding that while discussing safety risks often leads to improved safety initiatives, it often overlooks the legislative, reputational and cost implications associated with neglecting mine-site safety.
E&MJ asked Kendall to expand her ideas in this area. “Those who work within an operation will have been exposed to safety concerns and incidents on a daily basis, and for their purposes safety represents very real repercussions,” she explained. “For those located at a distance from the operation, safety represents something entirely different.
“While those who are purely administrative and working in corporate hubs (especially those in control of the corporate coffers) understand in principle the concept of keeping employees safe, the reality is often lost with distance. Mining and resource companies cannot have a purely production or safety-intensive focus, one cannot exist without the other. Understanding and awareness of how these can complement each other can assist in progressing safety initiatives that assist production growth,” she said.
One of the challenges, she suggested, is that all too often, safety requirements are seen as being onerous to those who are responsible for administering them. However, she went on, “a number of companies [in Queensland] are looking at building their safety profile to be easy for those on site to complete all required safety activities without interfering significantly with their ability to complete their work.
“By understanding the interdependencies of production and safety, a business can determine what initiatives are essential, approximately how much money can be saved and what the impact to it will be with this resolved. However, a sole production or safety focus will limit the potential of an organization,” she said.
And while safety has traditionally been seen as a cost to organizations, she added, by carrying out an assessment on indirect safety costs to a business, safety can save a company significant amounts in lost revenue.
Training is the Key
In his paper to the London conference, Andrew Watson of Mines Rescue Service Ltd. in the U.K., said, “the safe operation of a mine is dependent on the competence of the employees. This competence should be tested to ensure the effectiveness of all mining operations.”
“To achieve this,” he went on, “the mine needs to have a methodical system in place to measure the competence of its managers, supervisors and miners.” Key requirements for such a system include:
- Training needs to be analyzed to ensure it covers all elements of the standard;
- Safety-critical procedures need to be prioritized (company specific);
- Training needs to be carried out by competent and credible tutors;
- Assessment needs to be carried out by competent and credible assessors;
- Training and assessment needs a standard to be aimed at;
- Refresher training and assessment need to be carried out for infrequent activities;
- Simulation needs to be as realistic as possible, especially to assess emergency procedures; and
- The recruitment process needs to be robust to ensure new recruits are either competent or can/will become competent.
This is clearly a comprehensive overview, and one that covers a host of requirements. Implementation, on the other hand, may be more challenging unless a comprehensive safety policy is in place, and resources provided to make it effective at all levels.
In today’s mining industry, the last point in the list can be one of the most important. As mining companies across the world have come to realize, finding staff who either have, or can be trained to exhibit, industry-specific knowledge and skills is often difficult, especially in areas where labor turnover is high. As an example, Québec-based IRSST cited the situation facing two mining companies in the province, one of which had to replace 72% of its workforce over a five-year period, while the other had recruited 300 new employees. In a limited labor pool, it can indeed stretch corporate resources to assimilate such a high proportion of new staff into a working structure.
Finding competent tutors can also raise issues. Ideally, new employees learn a large part of their day-to-day skills from experienced miners of long standing who know what they are doing. That, of course, can be challenging in its own right, since long-term employees who “know the ropes” also know the short-cuts and can evaluate any potential risks associated with them. In general, recruits, and especially young recruits, cannot. Handing down experience is much more than just instructing someone about the sequence in which levers need to be moved.
In addition, operational issues can obstruct tutoring. Management at a mine that relies on its older employees to maintain production may be loath to release them for short-term teaching duties, even if there will be long-term benefits.
Simulators Offer a Solution
Being able to experience and understand tasks before having to handle them for real has clear advantages for both employer and employee. Not surprisingly, there is now a well-established supply sector that focuses exclusively on training simulators where operators of all types of equipment can learn and fine-tune the skills they will need in the mine. The potential for accidents caused by a lack of experience is minimized, while the mine can do without dedicated training vehicles, for instance, or can reduce the time spent by experienced staff in non-productive work.
The range of training scenarios now available is simply staggering. Whereas a few years ago, draglines and haul trucks seemed to be the limit of simulation capabilities, today’s virtual reality systems can offer everything from training on individual plant items to the experience of a complete operation.
Recent introductions from one of the long-standing innovators in this market, Immersive Technologies, have included new simulators for Caterpillar mining shovels and for motor graders. Australian-based, Immersive reported that it now has simulator modules at work in 35 countries, with individual units tailored to replicate in detail machines from many of the world’s leading OEMs.
Last August, Immersive released VirtualGround 3.0 as part of the launch of its Cat 7495 rope-shovel simulator. In addition, the company said, it had extended its Global Operator Benchmarking System (GOBS) to include electric rope shovels, opening the way for shovel-operator assessment. Immersive explained that VirtualGround 3.0 is designed to provide realistic material response, digging resistance and visual appearance, crucial details for the effective training, up-skilling and assessment of shovel operators.
By using GOBS, Immersive added, mines can now assess the effectiveness of their rope-shovel operators against global norms, making use of a global frame of reference for operator performance and highlighting opportunities for improvement. The company also offers Training Systems Integration (TSI) and support services that can enable mining operations to achieve measurable improvements in operator productivity, while reducing maintenance events.
QinetiQ, which like many other industry suppliers has its roots in aviation and military simulators, demonstrated its mining-sector capabilities at the ICSMRI in London last October. The company offers a 360° fully immersive training theater that can simulate a complete mining operation’s working environment.
Tires represent one cost center that is relatively easy to monitor, with Immersive claiming that the use of its simulator-based operator training programs has already helped to save mines worldwide an average of more than 10% on tire costs. The company cited a recent project undertaken with a North American mine; over a five-month training program, tire replacements resulting from damage were cut by 27%, with the simulator software monitoring operator behavior that can directly impact tire wear—such as operation around spillage, dry steering, aggressive cornering and speeding.
Other simulator suppliers include Canada’s CAE, which has been in the business since the 1940s, initially in aviation but more recently in other sectors as well, including mining. CAE Mining claims to be the first supplier in the mining industry with technology that has been certified to the global Type 7 standard for simulator sophistication and quality that integrates movement, graphics and realistic machine response with millisecond accuracy. For the operator, the company said, the most obvious difference is a much lower incidence of motion sickness in the simulator, making it more productive as a training tool.
CAE asks the question: “Using traditional training methods on real equipment, would you practice a haul-truck scenario of driving over the speed limit, downhill, loaded, on a wet road, blind corner, and encountering a stationary light vehicle in the middle of the ramp?
“With CAE Terra simulators,” it goes on, “you can expose operators not only to normal operating conditions, but also to abnormal and emergency scenarios in complete safety. By practicing rare events in the simulator, the best response can be taught and becomes second-nature if the scenario ever occurs in real life.”
In July 2013, the company delivered two CAE Mining Terra simulators and e-learning courseware to Fresnillo, the world’s largest primary silver producer. The simulators feature a 270° wrap-around screen, high-fidelity simulation, cabins for underground LHD and drilling equipment, and allow the instructor to alter the training scenario dynamically. Fully simulated rock dynamics and climatic conditions allow students to train with the real-life feel of the equipment interacting with the rock, allowing them to be better prepared for a range of conditions and unpredictable events, CAE reported.
As ThoroughTec Simulation, the South African supplier of the Cybermine system, pointed out, the benefits of training using simulators include training efficiency, lower maintenance costs for equipment being used by trainees, better safety and improved productivity. Each simulator session can focus on the training needed without wasting travel time, with simulators being able to bridge the gap between classroom learning and hot-seat training faster by combining visual cues, motion, sound and motor memory with an advanced reporting system to fast-track students to the required competency level. During training, the company added, operator errors can be identified and recorded so trainees are able to focus on areas where they need to improve. In addition, emergency procedures such as tire bursts or engine fires can be simulated, helping trainee operators to identify hazards in real life, prevent accidents, cut downtime and increase productivity.
In mid-2013, ThoroughTec launched a jumbo drill-rig simulator that can perform scaling, bolting and mesh-handling functions, based on Atlas Copco’s Boomer 282 and Sandvik’s DD420 twin-boom rigs. The company noted that these two cabs are among its most popular simulator units, and that feedback from users in Australia had indicated the need for a simulator that could replicate these ancillary tasks.
The company admitted that while incorporating scaling, bolting and mesh-handling posed a challenge to its software-development team, several mining companies, including BHP Billiton and Gold Fields, have placed orders for these fifth-generation drill-rig simulators with the added capabilities.
As with ThoroughTec and CAE, U.K.-based QinetiQ has its roots in aviation and military simulators. At the ICSMRI in London last October, however, it exhibited its more recently developed mining-sector capabilities, offering a 360° fully immersive training theater that can simulate a complete mining operation’s working environment.
Over the past five years, QinetiQ’s training and simulation division has been working with the New South Wales state organization, Coal Services Pty, to develop and implement its Coal Mine Safety Virtual Reality Training (VRT) program in four of its largest training centers. These facilities now train more than 2,500 miners a year in hazard awareness, emergency response, mine rescue, and production/maintenance efficiency, QinetiQ told E&MJ.
The results have been significant, said Sue Allen, the company’s head of sales for global non-military markets. Despite employee numbers in the state having risen by 62% over the five-year period, with coal production up by 25%, lost-time injury rates have fallen by 43% since the introduction of VRT.
Allen added that QinetiQ can now offer 39 different coal-mining VRT session scenarios for both open-pit and underground. These cover training on a wide range of mine operations and emergency situations at a fraction of the cost of developing new custom software, she said, pointing out that from a general perspective, coal mines in particular are remarkably similar in terms of their layout and the technology used.
In addition to its 360°, 120-m2 screen, which is suitable for training 15–20 people at a time, the company’s VRT systems include a 120° curved-screen theater for training up to 30 people in a lecture-room format, and a 180° dome where groups of up to three can train on specific tasks, interacting with the projected images with the controllers that they would use in real-life situations.
And, as well as training for routine operations, QinetiQ’s VRT offers emergency and rescue scenarios such as gas outbursts, equipment and gas fires, rockbursts and spontaneous combustion—all with the aim of familiarizing miners in self-rescue techniques and rescue crews in recovery procedures, without exposing them to danger.
Allen told E&MJ that QinetiQ has also provided a 360° system to Rio Tinto for use in a copper block-caving operation, and is working with other hard-rock mining companies over their future needs for VRT.
More and more, mine operators are understanding the benefits that can be accrued through using comprehensive training programs. What is important, of course, is that training has to be both continuous and regular: it is pointless spending money on training someone on a piece of equipment and then leaving them to their own devices for ever after.
People forget, and people develop their own systems for doing things, not all of which may be as safety- or production-orientated as they might be. Even simple things, such as knowing how to use a self-rescuer, must be taught, and re-taught, and refreshed again and again, if they are going to be effective when they are most needed—which is usually when you can least afford the time to look in the training manual.
Keeping a Cool Head
Underground mines are getting deeper and, in consequence, generate a hotter working environment. In 2003, and acting on a suggestion from Rio Tinto, the University of Nottingham in the U.K. began work on developing a wearable device for measuring heat strain in those employed in such conditions. Following on from this, in 2012 the University began a partnership with Tioga Ltd. to develop a personal health and safety monitoring system for deployment in mines.
The system uses a helmet-mounted sensor, powered from a miner’s lamp battery, that transmits data on the wearer’s heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature and motion. The system’s control board also senses the ambient temperature and the humidity, as well as sending the data via a wireless link to a surface control center. Here, data are displayed in real time, allowing monitoring of the health of the workforce and facilitating reaction to any emergency—such as if a miner falls and motion stops.
Thus far, the Mining Industry Mobile Sensor (MiMoS) has been trialed successfully on caster operators at an aluminum smelter, and underground at Cleveland Potash. Further trials are under way, with the aim of developing a fully functional system that has regulatory approval for underground use. In addition, the developers are evaluating the inclusion of features such as gas sensors and a zone-based positioning system.