There has been much debate lately, both in the media and in legislature regarding safety in mines.

Much has been made of corporate accountability and the role played by training and preventative measures in keeping miners safe, and in fostering an environment in which safety is paramount.

In particular the expansion of South Africa’s gold and platinum industries has resulted in increased mining activity, more miners and greater safety risks. Indeed, accidents and fatalities continue to occur on a regular basis.

Around the world mine accidents have made the headlines including the successful rescue of 33 miners in Chile last October, the loss of 29 miners at the Pike River coal mine in New Zealand in November, and most recently the deaths of four miners at a colliery in Wales.

In South Africa, while the death toll from mine related accidents fell 24% in 2010, it rose again by more than 20% in the first half of 2011 with the majority of incidents occurring in the country’s deep gold and platinum operations. By August this year, 76 South African miners had been killed in accidents, leading minister of mines Susan Shabangu to describe the situation as "carnage".

Safety and the law

Most accidents occur as a result of human error, and it is this factor that the mining industry is trying to mitigate and control through extensive legislation.

In South Africa the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) stipulates that employees are responsible for the protection of the health and safety of employees and other persons at mines by promoting a culture of health and safety and providing for the enforcement of health and safety measures and the appropriate systems of employee, employer and state participation in health and safety matters.

In addition employers are expected to establish representative tripartite institutions to review legislation, promote health and enhance properly targeted research and provide for effective monitoring systems and inspections, investigations and inquiries to improve health and safety.

The South African government is introducing new legislation tightening the MHSA regulations and even holding company executives and mine managers responsible for fatalities, with penalties including fines and criminal liability.

Safety solutions

As a result of this increasing legislation, companies are constantly aware of the need for strong safety practices. This includes the use of employee training programmes to ensure staff are fully briefed on all aspect of health and safety around the mine site.

The MHSA states that, as far as reasonably practicable, every employer must provide employees with any information, instruction, training or supervision that is necessary to enable them to perform their work safely and without risk to health; and ensure that every employee becomes familiar with work-related hazards.

"Safety is morally and financially good business," says Paul Saker, managing director of MineWare Solutions, a software services and technologies provider.

Many mines have extensive social upliftment and life skills training programmes in place for their workforce. Workplace safety is also of paramount importance, and mines ensure that capital and time resources are applied pro-actively in an effort to make mines a safer place. As a result MineWare has developed a unique safety-awareness tool called the ‘Safety Game’.

"Unfortunately, in our media saturated environment, our heroes are risk-taking daredevils. Just about every adventure film has one of these characters as the star. Nobody wants to see a Batman that keeps to the suburban speed limits and slows down at the yield signs! Safety isn’t fashionably cool," Mr Saker says.

"We decided to inject a bit of the whiz into our system to try bridging the ‘safety is boring’ chasm. That gave us the basis for our safety game."

Playing safe

The Safety Game interface is similar to a normal desktop computer. Players play an interactive first person game, where they are presented with different scenarios depicting safety hazards. Once they identify an unsafe situation, they have to take corrective action.

Standard or specific risk scenarios can be set up according to the mine’s needs or changing safety environment. For instance a new safety campaign can be included in the game to emphasise specific issues management wants to bring to the attention of its workforce. The game is highly visual and easy to use, allowing players with no previous computer experience to step up and use it. Language preferences can be individually selected, accommodating a diverse workforce.

MineWare recommends including the game as part of the mine’s existing induction and refresher training courses, to ensure each employee receives the safety awareness training at least once a year. Additional safety campaigns may involve employees returning to the learning centre for another attempt at solving new hazards included in the game.

The game functions by allowing an individual user to sign in, using a unique industry or employee number. There is also the possibility of using a fingerprint reader/scanner, in order to police usage and user compliance more effectively.

Employees are graded according to their current safety rating and their safety training requirements are analysed accordingly, playing the game according to their ‘competence level’.
If a user does not keep up with the safety game, points are deducted and their level drops. If a player reaches a more advanced level, they may get a new level rating.

Each mine will be able to decide how to ‘reward’ these different levels. Tokens can be used as a reward, which are then endorsed by the mine, and redeemable at, for example, the canteen. Results of top performers can be published with their names in newsletters, giving recognition of good performance and serving to encourage workers to learn about the safety hazards applicable to them.

As always, a culture that supports and encourages health and safety is encouraged. Management can then ‘audit’ these results and see where more training needs to be done, or which areas need attention, helping with accountability of the mine as a whole where safety is concerned. This system can be linked to MineWare’s Personnel Equity Management System ( PEMS) or any personnel management software system currently available.

The game has the advantage of giving immediate feedback that is numerically quantifiable, allowing managers to audit player progress and filter information as needed, and suitably adapt their training initiatives, while keeping tabs on employee safety awareness.
This software was developed for potentially all clients in high-risk situations, where training and safety are of paramount importance. As the nature of the game is interactive and visual, it can be changed and adapted to suit many environments and even different industries. The Safety Game software is customisable, making it a flexible tool that can immediately be used in any environment.

This can include development of modules for different roles within a mining company, to ensure each employee receives awareness training focused on specific hazards they are exposed to.
For example the game as played by a team leader will differ from the game/module as played by a rock drill operator, as they are exposed to different risks while doing their daily tasks.

Interactive updates

The next step planned as part of the development of the Safety Game is to link animated clips to certain scenarios to illustrate what can go wrong.

Too often employees follow rules blindly, without fully comprehending the risks involved. The addition of animated clips should ensure that when an employee conducts a task, he/she will consider what was shown in the game and will avoid shortcuts or bad practices, in fear of the same happening to them.

Employees will do better when they know better, and by illustrating what normally goes wrong (and its consequences) awareness is created and instilled. MineWare can additionally assist clients in animating actual safety incidents which took place in a specific mine.

In the past written notices have been issues to communicate incidents to other mining operations and employees not directly affected by an event. Now it is possible for management to better convey the lessons learned from these incidents, to all employees at a specific company, and in so doing prevent recurrences.

"In an ever changing world, the only certainty is that requirements will change and grow on a day to day basis. It is our ability to change our systems continuously whilst maintaining their integrity that has allowed MineWare to grow and prosper" says Mr Saker.