Mining is a dangerous industry, but new mining technology is making it a much safer line of work. The internet of things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies enable smart mining operations with far more visibility into hazards and control over their impact. As these innovations become more accessible, the industry could move past its reputation for risk.
2020 marked the sixth consecutive year with fewer than 30 mining fatalities in the U.S. That’s a promising trend, and technology can take it even further. Here are six ways how.
Automating Dangerous Tasks
The most effective way to address a workplace hazard is to remove it entirely. While mining technology can’t necessarily eliminate some dangers altogether, it can remove human workers from these hazards, producing the same effect.
Automated machines can handle the most dangerous tasks in the mine, so if something goes wrong, it won’t endanger any miners. Sharing the workload with robots will also give human miners more time to focus on their work, reducing accidents from pressure-driven errors and oversights.
Automated mining equipment may sound far-fetched, but it’s already a reality in mines across the globe. Mining giant BHP has used automated trucks since 2014 and used a remote-controlled robot to fix an underground pressure valve in 2018 without putting workers in harm’s way. As technology develops, new mining robots will emerge, opening even more opportunities to automate hazardous tasks.
Monitoring Miner Health
Smart mining operations can also use technology to provide real-time insight into workers’ health. Wearable devices can track users’ health signals like heart rate, body temperature and perspiration to recognize when they’re in danger of overexerting themselves. They can then alert workers to take a break, preventing bodily reaction injuries that account for 35% of all injuries in mining.
Wearables are most recognizable as consumer devices like fitness trackers and smartwatches. Mining companies can use these to improve safety, but purpose-built, commercial-grade wearables are becoming more common, too. That includes smart helmets, connected boots and IoT-enabled vests.
Data from these wearables can also reveal which situations workers experience the most overexertion in. These insights can help managers make better decisions about how to approach hazardous workflows or what to automate to prevent injuries.
Mining technology can monitor other safety factors around the worksite, too. IoT sensors throughout the mine can monitor for changes in the environment to detect incoming hazards and alert workers, informing timely, effective responses.
Some mines are near 100-year-old degrading surfaces, unstable rock formations or in areas where trapped gases may seep hazardous fumes. These risks can be difficult to detect by manual means until it’s too late, but smart sensors can detect them before they’re noticeable or even dangerous to humans.
Unlike conventional hazard-monitoring systems, IoT sensors communicate in real-time with other devices throughout the workspace. That interconnectivity lets them send immediate alerts to phones, tablets and equipment everywhere in the mine. Consequently, IoT sensors enable more effective hazard communication, letting workers get out of harm’s way faster.
Preventing Equipment Malfunctions
IoT technology in mining worksites also comes in the form of equipment maintenance sensors. These devices track factors like engine temperature and vibrations to determine when a machine needs repair. They then alert workers, enabling faster, more effective fixes, which prevent potentially dangerous malfunctions.
Mining equipment undergoes considerable stress, so frequent maintenance issues are likely. Regular, schedule-based maintenance can address these problems, but this may involve unnecessary repairs, leading to unnecessary downtime and related costs. Smart mining operations manage both concerns through IoT-based predictive maintenance.
An IoT-based maintenance program eliminates unnecessary repairs because it enables need-based maintenance. This need-based approach is also more effective at preventing breakdowns that could endanger operators and other nearby workers. As a result, mining companies have more reasons to implement a safer repair program.
Improving Workplace Visibility
Another way mining technology improves workplace safety is by making workers more aware of what’s around them. Wearables can communicate with other IoT sensors like equipment trackers to alert employees when they near hazards like incoming vehicles or ledges to prevent accidents.
Contact with equipment accounts for more than 100,000 injuries a year, and many of these incidents stem from human error. Loud, crowded worksites and long working hours make it difficult to spot these hazards. Real-time alerts from IoT systems fill in those awareness gaps, helping workers avoid these preventable injuries.
Over time, data from workplace IoT sensors will provide insight into overall mine safety trends, such as where most injuries happen or where workers spend most of their time. Company leadership can use this data to inform longer-term workflow changes to minimize accidents.
Smart mining operations also tackle safety issues before work at the mine begins. Human error accounts for many workplace injuries, so more thorough training is an important part of safety. However, persistent worker shortages lead many mining organizations to put new hires to work as soon as possible, potentially skimming important training.
Technology like virtual reality (VR) and digital twins provide a solution. These technologies let mining companies create realistic virtual recreations of real-world mining worksites to train recruits in. New hires can then learn important skills and safety best practices before being in a hazardous environment.
Because these technologies are more engaging than conventional educational tools, workers may also learn safety protocols faster. Augmented reality (AR) glasses extend these benefits, displaying important safety or workflow information in workers’ fields of view as they work. New hires can then work safely and answer questions without a veteran employee supervising them, streamlining the onboarding process while maintaining safety.
New Mining Technology Has Significant Safety Implications
Mining technology like this is still relatively new, but it’s already showing impressive results. As it develops, it will become more functional and accessible, leading to increased adoption across the industry. That trend, in turn, will make the mining industry safer than ever before.
Regardless of the specific hazards a mining company faces, there’s technology out there that can help. As these six use cases highlight, smart mining operations can eliminate and mitigate workplace risks at every step. If applied effectively, this technology could revolutionize mining safety.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine discussing the latest industry innovations and trends.