The global mining industry is turning to automation and mechanisation as an allen compassing safety solution. These technologies should not however be viewed in isolation and the answer to all safety related challenges because in reality, mines will never completely remove the human element. This means the sector needs to continue prioritising the implementation of systems (from credible suppliers) which are designed to protect their personnel, ANTON LOURENS, MD of electronic safety equipment specialist Booyco Electronics, tells LAURA CORNISH.
“There is currently a big drive to adopt mechanisation technologies to limit the number of people on site – especially in our deep level mines and even more so as technological developments in this area continue to improve,” Lourens begins. “But two important facts need to be considered – the human element will never be completely removed from the mining environment and historically, the majority of accidents are human related. This means our industry needs to continue focusing on and prioritising solutions that will protect the safety of its workforce.”
Fall of ground and mobile machinery interactions continue to be the biggest contributors to fatalities, and mines need to focus on these areas if they want to successfully achieve their zero harm ambitions, Lourens continues.
And even though the industry has made significant strides with regard to safety, a fundamental shift in the way safety is embraced is still required.
“Improving safety should be viewed as a preventative necessity rather than a grudge purchase. If we adopt that philosophy, and acknowledge that it is also a social responsibility, reaching new levels of safety would be easier to achieve. And teaching people to be accountable for their own safety is vital to this process.”
Ultimately, the ideal solution is to find a balance between mechanisation/ automation, incorporating systems geared around improving personnel safety while ensuring that workforces adopt safety rules. This approach will have a significant impact on safety targets.
Lourens acknowledges the challenges that continue to prevent companies from fully embracing human safety systems such as proximity detection systems (PDS) – a field Booyco Electronics specialises in. PDS technology is also evolving rapidly and has gained momentum in the marketplace since it has been incorporated into legislation.
“Subsequently, clients are concerned about burning cash should the PDS system they employ become quickly obsolete. We have also seen companies move from wanting to embrace PDS technology, to finding themselves in a position where they cannot afford it, to now having to incorporate it as a result of legislative requirements. Unfortunately, in many cases we have seen companies opt for cheaper PDS solutions where the technology has failed. This has made them reluctant to consider other fit-for-purpose technology further.”
The junior mining industry has also been slow on the uptake of PDS technologies as it looks to follow in the steps of the established, large-scale mining houses who themselves have yet to fully embrace PDS solutions.
Understanding PDS delivers maximum benefits
It is important to understand that there is no silver bullet solution to solving every safety problem, and this applies to PDS as well. “Mines need to understand their operating environment, the operating parameters of their equipment and their individual safety challenges. This allows companies such as ourselves to provide a PDS solution that caters to specific environments and safety needs,” Lourens explains.
In line with this, Booyco Electronics has been an active participant in The Earth Moving Equipment Safety Round Table, or EMESRT, which was established as a formal entity in 2006. It focuses on accelerating the development and adoption of leading practice designs to minimise health and safety risks, through engaging with OEMs, suppliers and end-users.
The company was one of just a handful of PDS supply systems that was invited by the EMESRT to participate in this PDS process.
“EMESRT has done extensive and valuable research into past accidentsacross all organisations and has outlined the most high risk scenarios that have resulted in fatalities,” says Lourens. “These scenarios are now being more specifically defined, and the EMESRT work group is asking PDS suppliers to offer a solution that will address the significant risk in that specific scenario – and that includes Booyco Electronics.”
The process has now advanced to the point where a performance functionality requirement for all PDS equipment is being implemented. “This is a great step forward, as a key problem that PDS suppliers like Booyco Electronics face is that we have to deal with dozens of OEMs when presenting our systems, and when talking to them about how our systems could be interfaced to each OEM’s equipment,” explains Lourens. “Similarly, every OEM has to speak to dozens of PDS suppliers about their respective interfaces and integrations.”
Now, through the EMESRT process, there is an objective and significant agreement that there will be a single, standard communication protocol and interface – and this will apply between any PDS supplier and any OEM.
A sub-committee within the EMESRT was set up to generate the PDS functionality specification. PDS has two components: on one side is the sensing technology, which detects the presence of machine and people; and on the other side are the OEMs, whose equipment must utilise and apply the sensing data.
The collaborative forum that Booyco Electronics contributes to has allowed the identification of key issues, and within the working group there are individuals dealing with the detailed aspects of each issue.
“Ultimately all PDS suppliers have to give a certain standard protocol and list of information to the OEMs to make this initiative work. By the same token, the OEMs have undertaken to incorporate those protocols into their control system – whatever their specific system might be. The drive moving forward is to educate the industry on the progress we have made in this area – which should then encourage them to implement the recommendations.”
The EMESRT process is also feeding positively into South Africa’s mine safety regulations – as the country’s own Mine Health and Safety Council has agreed to adopt the work that EMESRT has done on PDS, as a basis for the country’s best practice and legal requirements.
Leadership from the Council, in collaboration with the Department of Mineral Resources, is looking to properly define the process for PDS adoption; and together they have established their own task team that will refine this process for South Africa and help guide the industry in finding fit-for-purpose solutions.
“The task team has now identified a number of sites where the test criteria are going to be evaluated to ascertain how to implement the technology to get the best results. The sites vary from open cast to underground and will also include different machinery including diesel and electric-driven equipment,” Lourens reveals.
This step will effectively deliver on the true purpose and capabilities of PDS and provide solutions that mining companies can fully embrace and trust, Lourens concludes.