April 19, 2022 6 min read
Mining remains a dangerous and punishing line of work. But fatal accidents have plummeted over the past century, thanks in no small part to evolutions in mining safety equipment.
A range of digital technologies may soon drive the mining industry into a new phase of growth. Estimates from the World Economic Forum (WEF) find that robotics, automation, and other technologies may create more than $425 billion for the industry and reduce deaths by roughly 10% by 2025.
This article looks at some of those innovations, exploring how PPE detection, smart mining safety helmets, and an overall “digitization” trend combine to make the industry safer.
New surveying and inspection techniques provide some of the clearest examples of innovative mining safety equipment. Take, for example, vertical tunnels known as “raises.” Raises connect working areas, provide ventilation, and serve as crucial transportation channels where waste is cleared, and minerals brought to the surface. Unfortunately, inspections of these tunnels, which may run hundreds of feet, are risky business for people.
But they’re no problem for the “Rail Runner,” a robot that clamps to existing equipment to create a three-dimensional map of a raise’s interior—with no human inspector ever going inside.
These robots also remain a valuable tool for ongoing “pit analysis.” With artificial intelligence (AI), drones can predict where pit mines’ steep slopes may collapse as conditions change. They’ve got impressive potential wherever there’s a slope or dimension that needs monitoring—whether it’s a road, stream, or mineral stockpile.
Similar equipment and processes can also help kickstart mine operations. So-called “corobots” (aka “cobots”) work alongside people conducting inspections when an underground mine first opens, using thermal and acoustic sensors to spot hazards that human eyes might miss. And in above-ground pit mines, these drones help identify the best areas for blasting, reducing the resources required to access ore while keeping inspectors at a safe distance.
Another example that deserves mention: The “autonomous underwater explorer” called UNEXMIN. A number of abandoned mines have flooded since their closure—but with a new resurgence in the search for rare earth minerals, some are poised to reopen. In the past, mining companies have relied on human divers as part of this process. But while surveying and sampling underwater remain a dangerous task for people, UNEXMIN conducts a thorough inspection (and even performs mineral analysis) with no need for human hands.
The WEF expects that industry digitization may eliminate 13,000 injuries by 2025. Many of these advances in mining safety either involve placing workers at a safe distance from harm with remote-controlled robots or eliminating dangerous tasks entirely.
Rio Tinto, a multinational mining company with more than $63 billion in annual revenue, may be one of the industry’s most dedicated digitizers. In 2019, the company completed work on an autonomous train fleet capable of transporting iron ore between its 16 mines and several ports. The driverless trains travel along more than 1,000 miles of tracks throughout Australia—and are joined by a fleet of nearly 400 autonomous haul trucks. These and other operations for Rio Tinto’s “Mine of the Future” are controlled mainly from Western Australia’s capital city, Perth, nearly 800 miles away.
Autonomous vehicles like these unload excavated materials for the Rio Tinto company. Image source:Penn State
In fact, automation has already arrived for all sorts of heavy machines (especially logistics vehicles). Some companies have even taken to operating remote-controlled drills via computer. Tools like these are poised to increase safety and efficiency: skilled specialists may be able to use equipment from anywhere in the world, widening the pool of workers and preventing injuries in especially hazardous applications.
Mining safety software has advanced rapidly: In 2020, Russia’s Eastern Mining Company (EMCO) deployed an AI-powered surveillance system to identify workers who fail to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job. Using automated reports to put data in the hands of safety enforcement personnel, EMCO reduced the number of safety violations in the workplace by nearly two-thirds.
A similar solution from copper-and-gold-mining-company Cemin transformed its existing collection of cameras into a compliance monitoring solution. The software initially used machine learning to detect compliance with COVID-19 distancing and masking rules at mines in Chile, as an outbreak among miners in close working and living conditions “posed potentially catastrophic risks.” But its success has encouraged the company to seek other applications, including compliance with mining PPE rules.
And nearly three-quarters of a mile underground, Canada’s Éléonore mine is running a large gold-digging operation leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT). Networks of connected tunnels equipped with more than 150 wireless access points have digitized operations. Workers and supervisors communicate with internet-powered phones. And radio-frequency devices make it easy to find missing hard hats, vehicles, and tools—and help verify that areas subject to blasting are unoccupied.
At Éléonore, a wide variety of sensors save money while ensuring safety: Lights and ventilation systems operate based on whether or not workers are in a particular region of the mine. Such improvements might reduce costs by as much as $2.5 million in air filtration alone. And these automated sensors also account for airborne threats, protecting workers from exposure to carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and propane.
Hard hats were first popularized as a peacetime safety measure by mining industry workers after World War I. Helmets from the war were adapted for the unique perils of working underground, with innovations that made them smaller, lighter, lantern-ready, and better at absorbing impacts. These advances have accrued over the past century, including lightweight thermoplastics and far better impact testing and design—and some 21st Century helmet add-ons promise to protect more than miners’ heads.
Dust control has remained an area of focus for the industry in the past decade. There’s good reason for that: Mining features all sorts of hazards leading to respiratory illness, including coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also known as CWP or “black lung”) and silicosis.
CWP is one of few workplace hazards that have worsened in recent years, with figures more than doubling since the industry’s best years (1995-1999). And silicosis—a lung-scarring disease that, like black lung, remains untreatable—may also be on the rise. While related deaths fell starkly between 1999 and 2013, newly rising silicosis numbers among young adults have caused concern in mining and other industries.
Each year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recognizes major technological advances with its Mine Safety and Health Technology Innovations Award. One such recipient was the Unimin Corporation for its role in developing “a wearable video recorder with a real-time data-logging aerosol monitor” used to measure breathable dust.
They look simple enough, but these cameras—attached to a mining hard hat or, sometimes, the shoulder—use various technologies to help prevent respiratory diseases underground. Image source:NIOSH via YouTube
It’s fascinating stuff: The so-called Helmet-CAM uses a small video camera, backpack, and “dust monitor” to record dust levels every two seconds. Later, mining safety software analyzes the data and helps viewers locate recorded footage at the moment concentrations exceeded safe levels. That information makes it possible to hone in on practices and places that put workers at risk, aiding mining safety compliance efforts.
And here’s another twist on mining safety equipment: Headgear fitted with devices called electroencephalograms (EEGs) can now monitor workers’ brainwaves to detect the approach of “microsleep,” an indicator of fatigue. With this equipment, laborers—especially those operating vehicles and other heavy machinery—can spot fatigue early, while supervisors review the data to determine when and where it tends to strike.
Many developments in mining PPE, engineering, and safety compliance management have made extractive industries far safer for workers. Some high-tech approaches, like full-scale automation, are revolutionary. Others, such as PPE detection, simply put a new spin on centuries of best practices. Nevertheless, digitization and automation still have a long way to go. In the meantime, the fundamentals—being in the right place, at the right time, and using the best available mining safety equipment—remain essential.
For a deeper dive into on-the-job mine safety, take a look at our blog on the rules and benefits of mining safety helmets—or explore the Hard Head Veterans blog for information on the science of head protection and more.