A combination of skilled leadership and digital technologies are driving down safety incident rates in the mining industry
By Carly Leonida, European Editor
The past 20 years have seen some astonishing digital safety technologies come to the market. From virtual and augmented (VR/AR) headsets to enhance the training of maintenance technicians, to fatigue monitoring systems for haul truck drivers and biometric monitoring devices. Attitudes toward safety have evolved too, but the biggest change has been in the way that companies operationalize safety.
In 20 years, safety has gone from being the responsibility of safety departments to something that everyone at every level must understand and embody regardless of their role or status. The faster companies have made that association, the faster their incident rates have fallen.
The way in which managers lead, incentivize and empower their teams to make decisions has been key to this. Investing in frontline leaders’ ongoing development is by far the most effective tools that mines have in improving their operation’s safety performance.
Gary Rivenes is senior consultant at Balmert Consulting. With more than 25 years of experience in the mining industry, Rivenes has served as general manager at several Rio Tinto and Cloud Peak mines in the western U.S., and has held positions including vice president of operations, executive vice president and chief operating officer. He now coaches other frontline leaders, imparting the skills and experience they need to get their teams home safely.
According to Rivenes, leadership is an area that is often overlooked in safety programs yet can have the greatest impact. Giving leaders the right tools to influence and provide feedback to their teams will ensure they continue to be aware of potential safety violations and, importantly, have the confidence to intervene even when the supervisor isn’t present.
It also makes team members feel valued and cared for, which can have a massive impact on recruitment and retention as well as team morale — people naturally want to be part of the best teams, and the best teams look out for their members well-being.
“One of the most important steps is to make sure that your leaders are engaged, committed and have the skills they need to make work better,” he explained. “When you have those types of leaders, you’re likely to increase your chances of success in all areas by tenfold. And for each person, the way in which you instill that and ensure they commit to being safe will be a little bit different. That’s human nature.
“We have to let people know that, regardless of their age, experience or status, if they see a potential safety situation, that they have the authority to speak up and/or stop that job. That’s one of the ultimate controls, because when you stop a job, there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to happen: nobody gets hurt. The leader’s job is to create an environment that fosters that thinking, but getting the entire team on board with that, from the 22-year-old newbie to the 50-year-old veteran can be difficult, and you need a range of tools and strategies.”
A big part of the challenge lies in staff turnover. The mining industry is currently facing a huge skills shortage as key operators and supervisors retire and fewer trainees are moving up through the ranks. There is the potential for key skills and knowledge to be lost and hence many people are being fast tracked through to management roles. In many cases, these people have the technical knowledge or experience to do the job but what they lack is adequate leadership training, the soft skills required to manage a team. Unfortunately, when things go wrong, these people are often held responsible, despite not being given the support they need to develop themselves.
“The bottom line: is we need to put more time into those people,” Rivenes said. “And that’s fortunately what I get to do.”
Balmert Consulting offers a range of training and mentorship programs, delivered both in person and virtually.
“We teach frontline leaders the practical skills they need to lead safety,” Rivenes explained. “We have similar sessions that we can run for executive teams and leaders who are office based too so that they are bought in and committed before you take it down into the teams who are on-site. Or better yet, we can get the senior management team in with the supervisors so that everyone’s on the same page. We also offer follow-up and refresher courses, independent safety assessments, hazard recognition training, and one-to-one coaching and development programs for leaders.
“Over the past two decades, we’ve trained over 100,000 leaders, from front-line supervisors and managers to vice presidents, division presidents, presidents, and CEOs, and provided services on six continents, in five different languages. We know what works and what doesn’t. And our team are all former operations leaders themselves. They’ve been there and have 25, 30, 40 years of experience under their belts in some cases.”
Balmert operates across multiple industries including manufacturing, construction, logging, chemicals and paper, so is well placed to bring lessons and inspiration from outside of mining into the sector too.
Training in Person and Online
Risk assessment and management is a key area of concern for many of Balmert’s mining clients today.
Rivenes explained: “We’ve put together some programs based around recognizing and challenging risks so that when people are out and about onsite and they see a potential risk, they feel they can do something about it.”
Asset management and breakdown management is another area that’s garnered a lot of interest in recent years. There is a direct correlation between unplanned maintenance for events like equipment breakdowns and safety. Properly maintaining assets can drive down a mine’s risk rating significantly, and there are a lot of technologies now that can help with maintenance planning and prediction.
Rivenes explained: “There’s usually an upfront cost to building a predictive maintenance program but the payoff is massive because, ultimately, mines can run their assets cheaper and drive their incident rates right down. It can take time to get those technologies and programs running smoothly, particularly in older mines where some change management might be necessary, but they are worth every penny.”
Over the past two years, COVID-related travel restrictions have proven a barrier for many mines that are looking to access safety training. Safety is an incredibly emotive subject and people often respond best to training when they are gathered together and can share their feelings and experiences face-to-face.
However, Rivenes said although the engagement is a little different when delivering training via video conferencing, these tools have ultimately allowed people to keep up their professional development and maintain or improve mine safety standards at a time when they could have easily fallen by the wayside.
“It is a bit tougher to coach people virtually,” he said. “It’s best if you can see people, get out on-site and observe how they work and assess their level of knowledge, because everyone does things slightly differently. But we have a very successful online program that allows me to teach right from this room.
“The benefit is that if you have a smaller organization, with a bunch of facilities in different locations, we can get leaders from each of those operations together for training on one video call rather than having them travel to a central location. That can really reduce the cost of training for some companies.”
Wider Benefits of Safe Operations
Safer operations can also have wider reaching benefits, improving recruitment and retention rates as well as company image.
“When people go to work, they want the best people watching over them. And the best people will not go to work at an unsafe operation,” Rivenes said. “They don’t have to. They get to go to the best operations. And the best operations are safe. Period.
“Frontline leaders are the CEOs of mine safety. They control the scope of the work and then people execute on it with their influence. That’s why leadership is so important when it comes to safety. Leaders have to get really good at leading by example: wearing their PPE, picking up the trash, telling people if they’re doing something wrong.”
Of course, safety isn’t just the responsibility of leaders on-site but of leaders throughout the entire company, including the executive team. Their job is to create a culture that puts safety front and center in the business’ list of priorities.
“The tone really does start at the top,” Rivenes said. “The executive team can’t just sit in their office. They should be seen out in operations from time to time and show an interest in what people are doing, because that has a lot of value and power.”
Which skill sets or qualities do you look for in leaders? E&MJ asked.
Rivenes replied: “Leaders have the ability to talk to people. And when I say talk to people, they have ability to ask them questions, listen carefully to their responses and act upon them. Listening is incredibly important and leaders who can do that have the most credibility.
“Good leaders have also worked in other roles and know some of the jobs. They know which standards and procedures their teams should be following. A good leader has the ability to tell people when they’re doing something wrong, but also recognize when they’re doing something right. The most important thing that a leader needs to have is care. And care is not given. Care is earned and practiced.”
None of these qualities or skills are new. They are tried and tested requirements for modern leaders and companies don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to training and fostering talent. However, an independent opinion can be useful in verifying safety systems and practices that are otherwise thought to be watertight.
“We can give leaders tips on how to keep moving with safety and verify their assumptions, because the reality might be different to how its perceived,” Rivenes said. “One of the most dangerous things in safety is thinking that you know, that you’ve got everything covered. Leaders have to be willing to listen to problems and make addressing them through action a priority, because otherwise things will not improve.”
From Leadership to Technology
Leadership is the No. 1 area to consider when it comes to operational safety; without that foundation and culture, even the best safety technologies will not significantly impact incident rates. However, as part of a carefully planned and well-resourced safety program, digital technologies have a valuable role to play in enhancing safety onsite.
For operators in particular simulation has proven an important tool for developing high levels of procedural memory and recall for emergency responses. Most emergency events cannot be practiced on live equipment (such as tire and engine fires, losing traction on wet roads, brake failure, steering failure, etc.) and simulators today incorporate highly realistic scenarios to build operator confidence and skills.
Glenn Heldberg, product manager for surface mining at simulation specialist Immersive Technologies, spoke about what he’s seeing.
“Because emergencies are a somewhat rare occurrence, the rate of learning decay from traditional annual refresher training is very high,” he explained. “Our data from training hundreds of thousands of operators shows us that roughly 50% of equipment operators cannot successfully pass an emergency event on their first attempt, and this represents a huge amount of risk for mining companies. Immersive Technologies’ post-training data tells us that, after simulation training, we can raise this pass rate to nearly 100%.”
In addition to simulators, there are other virtual training products that offer benefits of easy repetition and high levels of recall but in a portable and online accessible format, even allowing for upskilling in remote job sites. Day-to-day tasks require practice to consolidate skill development and virtual training products provide an effective way to develop and optimize these skills without any impact to production.
Cian Dobson, Immersive’s visual database manager, weighed in: “Our virtual reality (VR) training utilizes VR headsets to build correct behaviors through realistic practice scenarios. It also connects learning to human emotion, especially around the importance of safety procedures, by allowing students to experience life-like consequences that leave a lasting impression, while also training muscle memory in the correct actions to avoid potential incidents.”
“VR provides an edge over real life for making connections and understanding the ‘why.’ It also allows trainers to enhance or augment components of an environment (highlighting, zooming in, rotating or even breaking apart components) while in situ so that a learner understands context and juxtaposition but can see ‘what’s happening inside’ or beyond face value. This can allow learners to identify hazards and confirm assumptions before being placed in a hazardous situation.”
Demand for training continues to increase as mines become more technically complex. For example, Immersive Technologies has now deployed autonomous training simulators to 20 of the world’s largest autonomous operations, which run both Caterpillar and Komatsu autonomous haulage systems.
Simulation Takes Safety Training to the Next Level
At MINExpo 2021 in Las Vegas, U.S., Immersive Technologies launched its latest generation training simulator, the PRO5. Equipped with a professional-grade visual system, the PRO5 is the first mining simulator to combine stereoscopic 3D, a one-piece curved display, photo-realistic graphics and RealView head tracking technology.
“The PRO5 delivers realism at a level not previously seen in the mining industry,” Heldberg said. “The platform builds on the success of its predecessors — the PRO4 — and, before that, the PRO3 and AES2B, which became the global standard in the mining industry over the past 23 years, training over 150,000 mining equipment operators across 47 countries.”
The PRO5 visual system provides sensory immersion and depth perception at the highest levels possible. It uses utilizes components that offer an extremely high mean time between failure. Immersive said the platform is based on the most durable and proven design in mining simulation that has delivered an asset life of 10-plus years with 99.4% system availability. Heldberg explained that the PRO5 runs Immersive’s SimControl software, which simulates 1,086 operator behaviors (errors), 2,287 configuration options and more than 406 event scenarios.
“The simulator database stores operator assessments and is used to identify areas of safety risk (also production and asset life risk),” he explained. “It’s quite common for mines to benchmark their entire workforce through simulation to build a risk profile. Once the areas of training needs are understood, professional services teams can then assist mines in implementing targeted training programs. Immersive Technologies has delivered operator safety curriculums to hundreds of mines, which has helped us develop best practices for operator safety training.”
2022 is the 13th year that Immersive Technologies has awarded a Global Business Improvement award to recognize mines achieving real results through simulation. Last year, its safety category winner was Caserones in Atacama, Chile, which achieved a 79% reduction in safety events during 2020.
Role of Remote Monitoring and Control
Digital or “smart” technologies for remote monitoring and control (M&C) have also proved their worth over the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. As people’s availability to travel to mine sites has been limited and, in many cases, still is, the benefits of monitoring and controlling equipment remotely has been brought into focus. Such technologies also play an important role in boosting the safety of mining operations.
Ken Albaugh, director of sales, rental and equipment, Xylem has almost three decades of engineering experience in process, facility, system, mining and pumping design. An MSHA-trained and certified miner, he has spent the last 15 years leading major mine dewatering projects for a wide range of mining customers and contractors and joined the discussion about safety.
“We have seen the benefits of remote M&C on many occasions over the years as we work with mining customers to protect staff and maximize efficiency and resources,” he said. “Remote M&C can mean less travel time for staff or no need to go to site at all. It can also mean that employees remain above ground instead of having to go down into the mine shaft to check how equipment is performing, eliminating the potential safety hazards that can entail.
“To give an example, we worked with a copper mining customer in Peru that required a powerful dewatering solution that could be operated remotely. The discovery of more copper deeper down in the mine, and the upcoming rainy season, meant they needed to drain water from the large open-pit mine. Having reached a depth of 1,200 ft (365 m) below the surface, routing electrical power became more difficult, causing security and safety concerns. Another safety concern driving the need for remote M&C was the fact that explosives were being used to dig deeper into the field.”
Xylem developed a solution for the customer using Godwin surface-mounted, diesel-driven pumps controlled by a remote monitoring system. The system was integrated with the mine’s internal SCADA system, maximizing ease of use and accessibility. This meant that staff could remotely start and stop the pumps, monitor capacity and fuel levels, and understand operating parameters. So, for example, the operators can monitor when a pump is approaching maximum capacity or control a pump flow in the event of heavy rain fall.
Smart Technologies for Risky Jobs
“Other smart technologies like water quality monitoring and reporting systems, as well as pipeline integrity tools that can detect leaks, can be very useful from a health and safety perspective,” Albaugh added. “These types of technologies can help to prevent equipment failures that could have detrimental consequences for the local environment, neighboring communities and mine staff.”
Xylem’s SmartBall is a free-swimming inspection tool that travels in the pipeline with the product flow, without any need to disrupt mining operations. It identifies leaks using an acoustic sensor that recognizes the sound of fluid leaving a pipeline. SmartBall enables targeted repairs of a pipeline and prevention of larger incidents, which could result in environmental damage.
In Colorado, U.S., Xylem was commissioned to inspect two parallel HDPE lines used to transport heavy metal-laden mine discharge water from deep underground to a settling pond almost three miles away. The pipelines travel through environmentally sensitive habitats and along a creek as they transport the hazardous water. This was the first inspection of the 12-in. and 14-in. diameter mine discharge pipes since they were installed 20 years ago. A two-day inspection using the SmartBall revealed a medium-sized leak along one pipe in the vicinity of a nearby creek, which could then be easily fixed.
Albaugh explained that remote bathymetric surveying is another useful technology in boosting a mine’s health and safety profile. He pointed to the example of a goldfield mine in Western Australia where the operator needed to survey impounded waters in the mine’s pit lakes. Volume surveys had previously been undertaken, taken from a boat on the lake. However, this was a labor-intensive process requiring up to four people that also posed safety concerns associated with working in a boat on the water.
Instead, the Xylem team collected data using its UK rQPOD radio control vessel and SonTek HydroSurveyor-M9 over the course of two days. Due to the location of the lakes, the boat had to be controlled from up to 1,180 feet (360 m) away. Speed of sound in water corrections, an integral part of any acoustic survey, were carried out using the SonTek CastAway-CTD. HYPACK software managed the preparation, survey, processing and outputs for the survey. This resulting data enabled the customer to determine volume for environmental reporting while ensuring that the correct pumping capacities and suction placement could be assessed.