Can automation solve mining safety risks?

Can automation solve mining safety risks?

The mining sector has achieved outstanding results in its push toward zero-harm operations. Consider that two decades ago, there were more than 12 fatalities per 100,000 mining workers. By the year 2016 this figure had dropped by three quarters, to closer to 3.1

These safety improvements came from efforts across the board, including dramatically improved training programs and better regulatory practices. Along the way there has been a deep focus on mitigating the risks of fires, explosions and flooding – traditionally the source of the most lethal risks in mining.

Australian research shows that these hazards in particular have gone from accounting for most mining deaths to fewer than one in five.2

And while the reduction in these hazards has meant large strides towards the mining sector’s goal of zero harm, the reality is that more recently there has been starkly less overall progress in mining safety.

Current mining fatality rates have stubbornly hovered at around double the Australian worker fatality rate of 1.4 per 100,000 workers for more than decade.3

It’s clear why deaths and injuries involving vehicles and mechanical crush are the main focus for the next leap forward in mining safety, and that’s where automation promises such a large impact.

Removing the root cause of mining fatalities

The obvious solution to further reducing fatalities in mining is to remove the things that cause danger, or to keep humans away from those things.

Previously, this was not possible. Vehicles required operators. Machinery lacked autonomy. But that has changed, with autonomous systems finding more and more operations across the mining arena. These systems enable low-level tasks and processes to be carried out without any human intervention and other, more complex tasks to be achieved with only remote supervision.

Relatively basic systems can assist in operational decision making by constantly monitoring the exact location and condition of underground mine vehicles and machines, for example. When such platforms are integrated with autonomous technologies – meaning the vehicle or machine has the ability to operate on its own, monitored by humans visually, remotely, and sometimes not at all – operational efficiencies are boosted at the same time that risks are mitigated.

Take ABB’s Robot Charger. It’s an industry-first robot charger, piloted at Swedish underground zinc mine Boliden Garpenberg, that removes the need for a human presence at the rockface as drilled holes are charged with explosives. By enabling remote charging and blasting, the Robot Charger makes mining safer.

Rethinking haulage to reduce workplace fatalities

Meanwhile, the next generation of conveyor automation solutions and electric hoists are facilitating truckless transportation of ore from mine face to processing. 

Material handling on mine sites has long been a chief source of risks in mining, but it is also one of the areas with the highest potential for continued safety improvement.

Haul trucks are a backbone of material handling, but also a major worker safety hazard. A US study found the vast majority of haul truck accidents were caused by a worker’s loss of situational awareness or loss of control, as well as making clear why it was such difficult work: “monotonous driving, rough roads, rapidly changing conditions, limited visibility, and low responsiveness are common mine-site hazards that make operating haul trucks challenging.”4

Australia has long been the world leader in autonomous haul trucks,5 which is widely expected to deliver significant safety benefits. These safety benefits extend well beyond reducing the risk of fatal vehicle accidents too, by also eliminating common workplace injuries sustained by climbing into haul trucks, as well as driving them for long hours.

For suitable mines, even greater safety benefits can be realised by the next generation of hoisting and belt conveyor systems, dramatically cutting down on vehicle movements in general.

By replacing haul trucks with conveyors or hoists, vehicular risks are greatly reduced, as are carbon emissions and operating costs.

Mining safety boosts productivity

As nations and industrial sectors strive toward their net-zero carbon goals, demand for mined resources is growing rapidly. Crucially, the minerals that are needed to help build and power the green infrastructure of tomorrow are increasingly mined underground.

Many mining operations, as a result, are going deeper.

Despite the safety challenges posed by ventilation needs, rock falls, hazardous gases and more, technology means this needn’t increase human risk. A digitally integrated mine can not only implement systems and processes that take people away from dangerous situations and away from machinery, it can also utilise data analytics from these systems to:

  • identify maintenance requirements in advance, ensuring safer use of machinery
  • alert people in real-time if abnormal activity is detected
  • automatically adjust platforms such as ventilation systems when specific temperatures or air quality measurements are exceeded
  • re-deploy people to another task in real time when unexpected issues arise 

Fewer fatalities and injuries also translates to lower costs, enhanced reputation, more uptime, lower regulatory burden and greater productivity. It can all be achieved in an integrated digital environment that introduces multiple other operational advantages.

The challenges faced by miners around sustainability and safety are intimately linked to technological advancement and innovation, two areas in which Australian miners lead the world. Integrated digital solutions make the zero-harm target achievable.

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References:

  1. Safe Work Australia, 2024.
  2. How safe are Australia’s mines? New analysis shows reform has been stalled for a decade. The Conversation, 2024.
  3. Key Work Health and Safety Statistics Australia, 2023. Safe Work Australia, 2024.
  4. Why Do Haul Truck Fatal Accidents Keep Occurring? Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, 2021.
  5. Australia continues to dominate the use of autonomous haul trucks. Mine, 2022.

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