When it comes to hazardous working environments, the need to balance productivity with employee safety is the greatest challenge and, as should always be the case, safety of the workforce takes precedence.
However, it’s also the case that some of the equipment and protective gear needed to ensure maximum safety, can render operational effectiveness almost impossible.
One of the biggest safety and productivity concerns in mining is respirable crystalline silica (RCS) – known more commonly as silica dust. With limited available and effective safety measures and protective equipment for operatives, this dust can lead to very significant health issues, and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide every year.
Many of the protective systems and equipment available for defence against silica dust inhalation will almost certainly result in significant productivity issues, and can also be uncomfortable and restrictive for the operatives themselves – a protection vs productivity conundrum that is a constant issue for the industry.
However, with the convergence of technology, software, big data, and machinery – from mobile devices and artificial intelligence, through to automated machinery and real-time strata monitoring equipment – it is now possible to find a balance between safety and productivity in mining operations, as well as mitigate the damage caused by dust and other elements.
The importance and difficulty of balancing mining productivity with worker safety
In the past, balancing mining productivity and safety was considerably more difficult due to the lack of sophisticated machinery, analytics and technology. Managers would make changes at mine level to improve safety and ultimately, operator health, but accurately identifying what change was responsible for that improvement was problematic.
Conversely, an increase in productivity would come at the expense of safety. This may mean longer work hours, less safety gear and machine precautions. While productivity would increase, so too would the number of incidents and risks. The small gains made in productivity might have seemed worthwhile up until an accident occurred.
For example, with operators conducting activities such as drilling with minimal protective gear, (hard hat, no protective clothing and a thin mask) they would be exposed to fine dust – known as silica – which is a natural substance found in varying amounts in most rocks, sand and clay. Some of this dust is fine enough to get deep into your lungs and is too fine to see with normal lighting.
Prolonged exposure to silica can result in lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and silicosis. In addition, this same dust can cause abrasive damage to machinery, affecting its performance, which could potentially result in delays if that piece of equipment fails during drilling.
Furthermore, with emphasis on productivity over safety, these dusts would quickly become airborne (as no dust suppression system is actively used to ensure safety) and possibly contaminate other areas of the mine. The water supply could become contaminated if the dust found its way through the mine’s ventilation and damage the ventilation system if not controlled.
What technologies are boosting safety and productivity in mining operations?
Sustainability in mining is more important than ever before. Operations have strict goals and milestones that must be met, with any reduction in productivity resulting in goals being missed. New technology means it is much easier to boost both productivity and safety, avoiding costly down-time and administrative burden, whilst simultaneously improving the workplace and making operations more efficient.
Problems like dust and gas exposure, or rock falls, can be protected against and potentially prevented with the right solutions.
One of the biggest historical barriers to balancing safety with productivity was the cumbersome nature of some equipment which, while providing good safety, was nearly impossible to move around.
Wireless and mobile technology has vastly increased the ability for operatives to move freely throughout a mine, allowing them to report any problems in real-time – like sudden increases in dust levels – and warn other operatives nearby and make it easier to resolve any issues before they get out of control.
This connected mine monitoring makes it much easier to protect operatives from potentially harmful dust and gas levels, while also improving operational efficiency by monitoring machine conditions, operator health, mine performance, structural health/hazards, ventilation, airflow, power and operator location all in real-time.
In the past, operational and safety considerations were often made in response to problems when they occurred. The emergence of advanced sensors, artificial intelligence and geo-modelling now means problems can be predicted, and even prevented before they happen.
The mobile nature of this technology also means operatives are not restricted when it comes to movement through a mine and they can be reassured to be kept updated of structural or environmental changes in real-time, ensuring they can not only work efficiently but do so in a much safer environment.
Safety must come first – that much is clear, but that does not mean that productivity has to suffer. Thanks to the technology that exists today, driving productivity whilst also ensuring safety is completely possible. The major threat of dust, as well as other hazards, can be mitigated and ultimately prevented with the inclusion of sophisticated mine monitoring solutions.
Now that we have discussed how to balance productivity and safety, the next challenge for labour-intensive industries is to focus on the well-being of employees – which is directly linked to business performance as well. Learn how the changing emphasis from safety to health will affect hazardous work environments by reading our eBook.