February 2014


It’s time to get smarter about safety

By David Carter

Mining companies are using new information technologies to significantly change the fundamentals of how they explore, excavate, produce, refine and distribute commodities. But for all the power that these data collection, analysis and modelling technologies have to make operations more efficient, they have not yet been used with the express purpose of making mining safer.

In a recent survey of mining executives, ensuring workforce safety came up as their most important issue, more critical than capital project costs, production efficiency and equipment reliability. Miners accept that safety is a paramount issue, yet for many reasons, we keep approaching safety in the same ways. Many novel technologies, from real-time worker ­tracking to video detection, which once seemed like science fiction, have emerged in recent years and, teamed with analytic tools, provide pragmatic solutions that can reduce real incidents today.

Since 77 per cent of mining accidents and 70 per cent of all fatalities involve equipment in production areas, knowing precisely where people and assets are located is critical. New location awareness technologies use tracking equipment and sensor-embedded tags to show a worker’s location within metres, whether under or above ground. This information can be used to track authorization levels, proximity to dangerous areas or unsafe distances from multiple vehicles, and record near-misses as they occur. Using this information, operators can analyze behaviours for analytics purposes, which can inform site-specific safety awareness programs.

Traditional video surveillance techniques provide many challenges. There are often high staff costs associated with monitoring closed-circuit TV and managing video content, and it rarely makes sense to watch everything all of the time. Video data are rarely used analytically, despite their utility as a prime source to explore for patterns and vulnerabilities. New computing technologies can perform a variety of tasks, such as detecting unknown objects, crossing virtual trip-wires to trigger alarms, and face cataloging. Imagine these digital assistants in your operations, watching greater amounts of live footage and being smart enough to warn operators where the danger is.

Through analytics, which involve using tools, models and techniques to aggregate, analyze and understand large quantities of information, operations can use historical data to understand the conditions and indicators of when safety incidents happen. Once this understanding is complete, models and simulators can be built and applied to new data to identify the likelihood of future events and how to avert them.

Process data mining and social network analysis are formal techniques that enable organizations to evaluate human interaction. The social network is assessed to understand relationships between the various personnel on site, such as understanding how work is handed over, when teams work effectively together, where duplication of activity occurs, and how external personnel like contractors enter the work mix. These techniques can be used to identify variances in procedures by specific contractors that might cause safety failures in the future. Understanding this might result in training that is consistent and effective amongst contracting groups.

One of the greatest safety risks on the mine site is a lack of knowledge and skills, as training for specific safety situations is difficult to rehearse or experience. Ideally you want employees to encounter safety issues infrequently, but repetition and experience are the very things that build knowledge. How then do we give workers experience in such situations without actually putting them at risk?

Serious Gaming is a learning technology that can be used to simulate a variety of unsafe scenarios in a realistic manner. The games are highly interactive, with hundreds of situations that the worker can experience and respond to. This technology offers a form of learning that lets the worker put theory into practice in a safe, simulated environment, allowing employees to learn at a deeper level as a result.

Though information technologies hold vast potential, we must also be keenly aware that aspiring to a world with zero safety incidents requires improvement in people, processes, skills development, culture, and knowledge acquisition. Technology can only be an enabler. As organizations look to adopt new safety technologies, each new initiative or program should thoughtfully include formal plans to modify worker behaviour, incentivize the right actions and redesign pro­cesses to accommodate greater safety, including more responsive training.

We have the tools to make mining safer. Let’s use them.

David D. Carter is global mining industry leader at IBM. He presented IBM’s white paper “Smarter Safety for Mining” at the second Global Mining IT & Communications summit in Toronto in November 2013.

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