Human error can be a significant contributor to mining accidents, with 133 miners in the US dying between 1995 and 2010 in incidents involving haulage trucks driven by human workers. In order to limit the impact of human error on operational safety, and cut down on the number of collisions at mine sites, many companies are researching autonomous vehicles.
BHP is one of the biggest investors in the technology; its Jimblebar iron ore mining hub in Western Australia has exclusively used autonomous vehicles since 2017, and the company’s first autonomous train carried 28,000 tonnes of ore across the state in 2018.
While the technology remains imperfect, with an autonomous BHP train forcibly derailed last year after it began traveling uncontrolled at speed and two autonomous trucks colliding at the Jimblebar hub earlier this year, neither accident resulted in a fatality. These may well be the teething problems of a new, but ultimately effective means of improving operational safety. There are estimated to be around 240 autonomous vehicles involved in the Western Australia iron ore industry alone, a number that is expected to grow as more miners invest in the technology.
Drones are becoming increasingly popular in the mining industry, removing the need for human workers to enter potentially dangerous environments to complete mapping or reconnaissance work, crucial steps that must be completed before a mine can begin operation.
Traditionally, mapping work was done using a cavity monitoring system, effectively a camera attached to a pole and inserted into a passage. The method required workers to enter potentially unsafe environments, and limited the range of the mapping work to areas that could be seen by the camera, two drawbacks that drones overcome, as they can be remotely operated and fly much farther into underground chambers. Drones can also be used in tandem with other technologies, such as LiDAR cameras, which use rapid pulses of light to construct accurate images of cave interiors, which can often show up dark and obscured in photographs.
Drones can also take advantage of simultaneous location and mapping, a system which enables them to locate themselves in relation to the environment around them, and navigate without human oversight. The devices can also be used in a range of other roles once mapping work has been completed, such as mobile CCTV cameras.
Sophisticated modelling techniques enable miners to construct detailed and comprehensive images of mine sites, primarily allowing workers to identify potentially hazardous areas before entering a mine. Furthermore, mode advanced techniques, such as augmented reality, provide unique training opportunities, enabling workers to familiarise themselves with a particular mine or set of operations in a controlled and safe environment.
This could reduce the number of workers injured during training, and ensure that those who go on to work at the sites themselves are skilled in a number of operations, reducing the likelihood of a mistake, which could lead to an accident. Improving the quality of training could be of particular benefit to the mining industry, where inexperienced workers are statistically the most likely to suffer from an accident: the Mine Safety and Health Administration reported that in a nine-month span in 2017, 931 miners with less than one year’s experience were injured. This is more than double the 418 who had two years’ experience and were injured.
Wearable devices can monitor a number of workers’ physical characteristics, which has clear potential to help improve safety performance. IBM has worked with a number of companies, including Garmin and Mitsufuji, to develop a number of wearables. This include a smart shirt that collects data on its wearer’s heart rate and body temperature, which monitor how human bodies respond to some of the more dangerous places in mining. By observing and assessing these physical changes, miners can take steps to deal with the causes of these physical stresses.
These technologies can also be used to give managers and safety officers information on worker location, creating a constant flow of information that can be used to warn workers ahead of entering unsafe areas, or enable managers to assess worker behaviour over a longer period. Devices such as wearables enable new sets of data to be collected in a non-obstructive way, and analysed to improve operational safety.
Ensuring miners always have clean air remains one of the most important elements of mine safety, especially considering the re-emergence of black lung disease among US miners in the last decade. Rates of the illness are higher today than they were 50 years ago, with one in ten miners nationally, and one in five in the states of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, suffering from the disease caused by the inhalation of coal particles.
The presence of harmful gases poses a similar threat, with carbon monoxide levels of just 0.1% of total air concentration causing fatalities, and methane becoming flammable beyond 5% of air concentration. Both these gases and particulates are also invisible to the human eye, making specialised monitoring devices, such as multi-gas detectors and anemometers crucial in protecting workers from airborne illnesses and harmful gases.
More advanced devices, such as the MSA Altair 4X, can also detect the movement, or stillness, of a worker, and trigger an alarm should a worker remain stationary for too long, due to the risk of suffocating and falling unconscious.