There’s no one-size-ﬁts-all answer for improving mine worker safety, but an expanding array of possible solutions makes it easier to tailor a program for success
by russell a. carter, contributing editor
Decisions and outcomes in the mining industry are mostly shaped by the laws of science, mathematics or supply and demand, but when it comes to safety and health issues, those ironclad laws and proven principles have to share space with the fuzzy science of human behavior. As an industry that involves large, diverse work groups and a constant flow of contractor and vendor personnel on site, the expanding scope of health and safety concerns might present mining companies with a prospect similar to switching from a game of checkers with a familiar adversary to 3D chess with a constantly changing lineup of opponents.
One of the principal challenges in this environment is to identify the factors that actually affect worker-safety compliance and performance. A 2020 survey by the U.S. government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at this issue by ranking the relative import-
ance of various safety “constructs” — the term for a research concept and tool that measures a characteristic or trait — in determining the most significant worker influences on health and safety (H&S) as defined by worker proactivity, compliance, and reported near-misses or other incidents. The constructs included four of a personal nature (risk tolerance, thoroughness, sense of control and adaptability) and six that were organizational (organizational support, supervisor support, supervisor communication, coworker communication, worker engagement and training).
The study, which involved more than 2,600 workers at 39 mine sites throughout 17 states, produced some interesting results. According to the authors, while all 10 constructs were meaningful predictors of compliance, workers’ risk tolerance was a predominant factor, followed by workers’ thoroughness and coworker communication. H&S training and organizational support were statistically significant but less important as influencing factors. These results, according to the authors, indicated, first, the prime status that personal constructs possess in predicting workers’ H&S performance; and second, the value organizations could gain from accounting for and addressing both organizational and personal factors where possible.
Through identifying and describing the potential impact that both personal and organizational indicators have on H&S compliance and performance, the authors suggested their report could provide general guidance that organizations may use to begin addressing selected H&S practices and, over time, scale their systems to include additional indicators. In addition, they mentioned certain areas of focus that could be used to develop or enhance various workplace safety initiatives that encourage personal responsibility. Some of these, in no particular order of importance, include:
Recognizing that risk tolerance among workers is a trait that can be changed over time. Consequently, employers should work toward improving workers’ decision-making capabilities.
Taking a second look at current training practices and how much they focus on improving workers’ opportunities and involvement regarding their roles in work processes and practices.
Enhancing worker engagement opportunities. The report provided examples that have been successful, such as allowing workers to choose a new type of personal protective equipment (PPE) based on a variety of approved options; involving workers on various health and safety committees, including participation in walk-throughs and debriefs on-site; and improving communication quantity and quality throughout the workday.
Powering Up for Data Delivery
There’s no shortage of recommendations — online, in research literature, or from consultancy sources — for addressing mine safety issues. As might be expected from recent industry trends, many of these suggestions are geared toward increased data collection and analysis. A critical factor in maintaining continuity in data flow is power grid reliability. The industry’s needs for digital solutions in this area haven’t escaped the notice of multinational, multisegmented companies like Hitachi, which purchased an 80.1% share of ABB’s Power Grids business in 2020. The acquisition, now known as Hitachi ABB Power Grids, provides an avenue for Hitachi to combine the power grids business with its digital technologies for expanded market opportunities.
One of the industrial areas the new entity is focused on is mining. Earlier this year, the company said it successfully deployed the first microgrid solution in Indonesia, ensuring a continuous power supply for off-grid mining operations at the Indominco Mandiri coal mine in Bontang, East Kalimantan. The solar-powered microgrid makes use of Hitachi ABB Power Grids’ Advanced Controls to maximize system performance, using Hitachi’s e-mesh solution to ensure stable, coordinated operation of the new PowerStore Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) and solar PV with existing power plants. During the day, the BESS smooths out fluctuations from the renewable generation and uses load sharing to ensure efficient operation of system gensets. It also supports network frequency, providing stability to the mining operations. The PowerStore, in addition to constantly monitoring power operations for issues, can quickly dispatch BESS when it’s needed to protect Bontang’e electrical network.
Coal Age spoke with Bryan Friehauf, senior vice president of enterprise software solutions, at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, and Jason Hartley, senior vice president of customer success, to get a better idea of how the company’s capabilities can be leveraged beyond power-grid operations to improve mine safety. Friehauf pointed out that Hitachi ABB Power Grids has access to many years of expertise and experience through ABB’s installation base of both electrical distribution equipment and plant control systems. “Combine that with our software solutions and we have the capability to provide IT and OT tools to operators through a single plane of glass, so to speak — a convergence that provides a higher degree of situational awareness of asset status.”
“That convergence allows us to place critical asset information not just in the hands of control room staff, but also into the hands of on-site workers through mobile devices,” Hartley added. “If something has to occur before a worker can safely enter a location, like de-energizing a machine or closing a valve, they can be sure it’s been done by checking their handheld and not just relying on the control room.”
Higher worker efficiency also can play into a safety scenario: “Through better information transfer, worker training and qualifications can be checked before they’re assigned to a task, so you don’t just have an operator trying to handle a job that requires specialized training or experience,” Friehauf said.
Advanced visualization capabilities made possible through enhanced network performance and other digital solutions also can contribute to improving safety in an industry workforce that’s changing — older employees are retiring, taking with them the knowledge and skills acquired through years on the job; while more contractors are appearing on site, working in locations or on equipment that they may not be totally familiar with. Moving beyond the concept of digital-twin models that is increasingly being used to improve mine-system design and performance, Friehauf envisages “operational” virtual twin models that show not just a digital rendering of assets, but also include as much physical, sensory information about an asset as possible.
“This would provide the ability to use the virtual model as a training tool — overlaying the real with the digital and incorporating step-by-step guided assistance to make sure the worker is following procedure” — either in a realistic simulation session or an actual repair assignment, he explained. “This type of technology is what will be needed to extend the skills and experience of older workers to new hires entering the workforce.”
Safe Design: First in Line?
Big safety problems can represent tantalizing opportunities for Big Data solutions. But, before companies contemplate using data as their primary tool for safety improvement, a more basic first step is often recommended: eliminating hazards in equipment, structures or processes during the design process. Safe design involves integrating hazard identification and risk assessment methods early in the design process, to eliminate or minimize risks of injury throughout the life of a product.
In the field or in the plant, fixed-base machinery with external movable parts, such as conveyors, often are the focus of safety efforts because of their high rate of involvement in incidents.
The Hierarchy of Controls concept, which alleviate hazards, with safe design considerations vital for minimizing safety risks, is now accepted throughout the industry. Mining leaders such as BHP have made it a foundational element in their safety risk management efforts involving everything from design and construction of new facilities to changes in existing operations and the design, planning, scheduling and execution of work. BHP also actively encourages innovation from its suppliers to bolster the company’s safety capabilities. For example, maintainers at BHP Mitsubishi Alliance’s (BMA) Caval Ridge mine wash plant will no longer be exposed to rotating machinery during filter press repairs because of a solution developed through BHP’s Supplier Innovation Program.
BHP launched that program in mid-2020 to make it easier for companies from the Mining Equipment, Technology & Services (METS) sector to work with BHP, while providing access to a broader range of unique and innovative solutions to business problems. The program is in partnership with METS representative body Austmine and follows a model that has operated successfully in BHP’s Minerals Americas business for the last decade.
The maintenance team at Caval Ridge used the program to help find a safer way to perform maintenance on the filter presses that remove moisture from coal rejects at the wash plant. BHP said the challenge drew interest from 235 suppliers across Australia, with 21 providing Expressions of Interest (EOIs). Through a series of interactive online workshops with representatives from the vendors, Caval Ridge, the Procurement Partners Innovation team and Austmine, nine companies were short-listed to present formal proposals.
In January, Australian-owned Jord International was awarded a contract to work with the maintenance team at Caval Ridge to pilot their solution. Jord’s solution comprises a belt cartridge installer within a self-contained steel frame that holds a new belt and removes the old, damaged belt. The first belt installer will go into service by July, and run for six months. If successful, the new approach will be implemented permanently at Caval Ridge, and potentially at other BMA sites.
James Agar, group procurement officer, said the Supplier Innovation Program enables BHP to crowd-source a broader range of unique and innovative solutions to business challenges. “With filter press belt replacements, it is a time-consuming task with lots of manual handling. While there are processes in place to control the risks around that task, the new solution proposed through this innovation program eliminates the need for maintainers to be in physical contact with the filter press altogether,’’ James said.
Make Management Part of Solution
Scott Gaddis, vice president and global practice leader for environment, safety and health at environmental health and safety quality software developer Intelex, wrote in a blog post for the American Society of Safety Professionals that even companies with the best safety-culture intentions sometimes fail to achieve satisfactory results because of a misdirected point of view. Focusing exclusively on compliance and mistaking compliance for culture are common mistakes; another is assuming that safety culture originates in the front lines of the job force, rather than recognizing that management is instrumental in fostering culture as well.
Severstal, the vertically integrated steel producer, which operates four large mines in Russia, is just one of many companies expanding the role and responsibilities of managers in safety initiatives. It announced in April it will start disclosing data on industrial injury rates (LTIFR) for contractors working at the company’s production sites, and contractor safety targets will also be included within the personal KPIs of top management from 2021. The company said the annual remuneration of a number of senior employees, including the CEO, is directly linked to occupational safety performance.
Companies interested in supervisory improvement may benefit from Mine Standards Training, a product recently introduced by equipment simulator developer Immersive Technologies. MST is designed to impart a deeper understanding of potential accident-causing scenarios for front-line supervisors, according to the company, which said focus on improving the supervision and coaching of heavy equipment operators via improvement of supervisor proficiency led to its development. “Gone are the days where it takes a full year for a supervisor to be exposed to all types of weather, traffic, loading and digging conditions. This exposure and skills development can now be accomplished by immersing the learner into a replicated 3D mining environment through VR and touchscreen technology,” said Cian Dobson, visual database manager at Immersive.
The company described MTS as “dynamic, offering users the option to operate in Virtual Reality via our existing Worksite VR Quest platform, or on an interactive classroom touchscreen. These two options leverage current simulation assets to create engaging content such as drilling and blasting, ground engagement tools, supervisor training, pit priority rules, and many more related situations.”
“Imagine being able to simulate a scenario from surface or underground operations, put it on a virtual table and walk around it. Now add the capability to view the process from the cabin of any machine, or teleport to the pit floor itself. Then, take this scene and insert visual cues a supervisor should be able to identify, assess and correct. Sometimes these cues are subtle and sometimes obvious. Some are visible immediately; some are only clear at various times of the day or from a certain vantage point.”
Dobson said the system would help supervisors “create realistic simulations in Mine Standards Training of both perfect and flawed operator behavior requiring the user to identify the deviations from best practices. This capability is helping transform existing flat content training programs to ones that are engaging and have higher levels of learner engagement and knowledge retention. The content is highly realistic and will improve the learning experience for both experienced and inexperienced users.”
Technology Can Help
The variety, capability and availability of technological solutions that can be applied to identify and possibly solve worker-safety issues continues to grow. Product and application concepts that once were regarded as beyond state of the art are now showing up in the workplace as everyday tools for work and information sharing.
For example, Hexagon, a developer of sensor, software and autonomous solutions, reported its workshop technicians are using Smith Optics safety glasses with Google Glass Enterprise Edition to support hardware repairs in local offices from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Brisbane and Perth, Australia, to Balikpapan, Indonesia. This approach, the company said, has in many cases reduced hardware repair and return times, lowered costs, enabled the sharing and capturing of implicit knowledge in a corporate repository, and ultimately improved the customer experience. Post-pandemic, Hexagon said it will continue to refine and improve this work method.
Vuzix Corp. recently announced that Rio Tinto has deployed its Smart Glasses at the Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia, enabling technical experts at other locations to remotely work with local teams on the mine site. And last year, Beumer Group, a material-handling systems supplier, announced the availability of its own Smart Glasses, designed to allow office-based company technicians to “look over the shoulder” of workers on-site to assess equipment problems. As explained by Christopher Kirsch, team leader for the project, said, “The employee at the machine puts on the glasses and starts the Beumer support app via voice command. The employee transmits a service number and a pin code to the hotline, and the connection with image and sound is established. The Beumer technician receives the same image as the customer. The technician can directly give instructions and display all relevant information in the field of vision. The employee has both hands free to follow the instructions of the expert and carry out the necessary actions.”
Diversified minerals producer Teck said it has completed a pilot project that used an innovative combination of on-the-ground data and video technology developed by Nanozen Industries to help understand potentially harmful dust exposures at a task level in order to closely focus critical control strategies. Nanozen is a Vancouver, Canada-based company that pursues innovative approaches to aerosol exposure analysis for industrial workplace environments. The project included Teck’s Greenhills, Fording River and Highland Valley Copper operations.
Teck explained that it’s been standard industry procedure for years to rely on daily sampling methods, averaged over the length of a shift, to determine dust exposure, but these sampling methods provide only one value indicating an employee’s overall dust exposure for a shift. By making use of Nanozen’s real-time monitoring technology, Teck said it was able to greatly improve the collection of information about dust levels during a work shift. Instead of a single value for an entire shift, the company can now monitor live, accurate information on dust exposures, enabling it to better understand how and when these exposures occur and to target controls that reduce exposures from higher-risk activities.
Integration is Key
While safe design is an excellent first step for eliminating safety incidents before they can occur, a recent article published by Deloitte highlights the advantages of using predictive data analysis to go one step farther by enabling companies to surpass simple analysis of past events and identify potential future scenarios that create a higher risk of an incident occurring.
Companies serious about monitoring conditions to proactively prevent incidents need greater insight into the circumstances and drivers of those incidents. Many companies struggle to access this level of data because it often resides in disconnected systems. “As mining companies move toward integrated nerve centers and begin to build enterprise-wide data lakes, they’ll be able to harness the data necessary to run advanced predictive models,” explained Shak Parran, partner, consulting, Deloitte Canada and co-author of the February 2021 report, On the Road to Zero Harm: Creating the next generation of integrated predictive safety systems, along with Gerhard Prinsloo.
By allowing companies to combine vast amounts of data, rather than viewing each in isolation, an integrated approach can help them uncover hidden patterns of behavior or conditions that contribute to incidents. At the same time, predictive models can position them to target high-risk operational scenarios and employee groups to intervene before these incidents occur.
The authors asserted that real insight into solving safety problems hinges on mature data governance, with mining companies perhaps appointing chief data officers or other executives responsible for establishing data standards across the organization. Turning the potential for a zero-harm future into reality may also require mining companies to look beyond their own internal data sources.