Fostering a culture of safety

Safety first. After thousands of years of mining and countless disasters, the industry that provides many of the materials we use and value in the world today is undergoing a safety revolution.

While mining fatalities periodically capture world headlines, advances in technology and mining methods together with proactive risk assessment methods are making mines safer. Taking a proactive approach means assessing risks before anything happens. “This is a big change for the industry,” says Professor Jim Joy of the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre at the University of Queensland in Australia. Professor Joy is an expert consultant for mining industry regulators and major mining companies around the world. Even though many countries have declared a policy of zero tolerance of fatalities, serious mining accidents still happen. One of the latest was in November 2008 when an explosion in a coal mine killed 12 miners in Petrila, Romania. “In the last 20 years, there have been some dramatic improvements in mining safety around the world,” Professor Joy says. “Much of this is due to new technologies and methods, like long-wall mining for coal, which ironically save lives but also pose their own risks.” “Mining safety is as much about safe systems of working and human behaviour as it is about engineering,” says Stuart Evans, global environment, health and safety director at Sandvik Mining and Construction. “It is vital to develop a strong safety culture in any workplace.

Good safety is good business, and it is increasingly a key element in becoming an equipment supplier of choice.” Sandvik Mining and Construction implemented its own environment, health and safety policy in 2007, and Evans says the safety systems and culture within the company are getting stronger day by day. By the end of 2008, the frequency of lost-time injuries at Sandvik Mining and Construction sites around the world had decreased by 50 percent from 2005.

According to the US Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, between 1936 and 1940 there were 1,546 fatalities and 81,342 injuries in American mines. Between 2006 and 2007, there were 69 deaths and 11,800 injuries. Half of the active mines in the United States were completely free of lost-time injuries in 2007. While China can claim to have some mines with excellent safety records, it had the world’s deadliest mining industry in 2007, claiming 3,800 lives, according to the China’s State Administration of Work Safety agency. Many people believe this number understates the full figure considerably.

Keeping mining workers safe

There is surely no better way to improve safety than to get humans away from the risks entirely. Enter AutoMine, Sandvik’s automated ore-collection system, a comprehensive solution for improving safety and efficiencies for underground mining operations through automation technology. With AutoMine, loaders in underground mines are operated remotely, more productively, longer and with less wear and tear, thereby reducing the cost per tonne. “People increasingly want safer and more efficient solutions,” says Taina Heimonen, global product line manager, mine automation, at Sandvik Mining and Construction.

“This is one of the driving forces in mining.” The company has been developing automation technology since 1990. Today AutoMine technology is present in some major mines around the world. One of the first AutoMine installations, commissioned in 2005, was at the DeBeers diamond mine in Finsch, South Africa.

There, autonomous trucks navigate a haulage loop between loading points in the mine and the primary crusher. Under South African law, mining equipment with operators onboard has a maximum allowable speed of 16 kilo­metres per hour. But according to the Engineering and Mining Journal, AutoMine allows the haulers in Finsch to reach speeds of 35 km/hr, driven from the comfort and safety of a remote control room.

In South Africa, 240,000 miners took part in a nationwide strike in December 2007 to protest poor safety standards. The strike was in response to an incident in October in which 3,000 miners were trapped in a gold mine for a day. In 2006 there were 199 fatalities. “Workers are saying enough is enough,” Erick Gcilitshana, head of health and safety at South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers, told African Business magazine. “Safety is needed now.

Employers need to take a leadership role and invest in safety in the same way they invest in production.” The underreporting of lost-time injuries has been a problem in the industry, in part due to the now largely discontinued process of giving bonuses for an injury-free record. Today, gross and willful negligence that leads to a fatal incident is punishable in many countries by large fines and prison sentences for senior company managers.

“The trend in the industry, although it is still new, is to move away from lagging indicators [the number of injuries or fatalities] and look at leading indicators [what has been done to prevent incidents] as a measure of having done a good job,” Professor Joy says. “It is about rewarding proactivity.” The winds of safety are blowing through the industry as mining vehicles and tools increasingly feature more ergonomic and safety-related improvements.

The new Sandvik LHD line of loaders, for instance, provides ground level and easy-to-access service and maintenance points on the machine. Advances in computer technology are increasingly allowing companies like Sandvik to develop systems to operate machinery remotely. Sandvik was first on the market with its AutoMine system where haulage trucks in a mine are operated not only remotely but also automatically. Developments are never-ending.

New mining products are continuously being presented — everything from new helmets and lighting systems to harnesses, boots and simulation tools — to promote safety in mines. After a dozen miners were killed in the disaster at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in the USA in 2006, the US Congress passed a bill that requires mining companies to improve the means of safely rescuing people involved in mining incidents, including keeping track of where each worker is deep underground. While mining companies have until 2009 to implement the Miner Act of 2006, there is little consensus on what technology to use, as antennas and other communication technology are not fail-safe when working underground.

Equipping miners with electronic chips in their headlamps is one alternative that uses a through-the-earth ultra-low-frequency paging system to ensure miners can be contacted in the event of an emergency. While fatality and lost-time injury rates have improved in recent years, they differ between countries and commodities, and the mining industry as a whole is still underperforming when it comes to safety. “We are still a magnitude away from what a community would consider safe and acceptable,” says Professor Joy, citing social research that defines safety as one fatality per 100,000 people working in an industry per year. The corresponding figure for a leading mining company is one death per 10,000 people per year. “As you can see, there is still a lot of work to do,” he says.

Alexander Farnsworth

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