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Sustaining zero harm in a mechanised mining environment

Posted by Deonie Botha on Dec 12, 2016 9:39:46 AM
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Prior to 2016, substantial improvements have been made in terms of achieving zero harm in the mining industry in South Africa. The Chamber of Mines (in 2016), indicated that “the mining industry has made significant progress over the past two decades to improve safety and occupational health in the mining sector, with an 87% reduction in the number of fatalities between 1993 and 2015. Unfortunately, the Chamber of Mines’ 2016 statistics show a 14% increase in fatalities.

The aforementioned emphasises the need to consider the current state of the mining industry, both in South Africa and globally, and also highlights the factors that could have an impact on the health and safety of individuals employed by the mining industry in the immediate future.

Several sources (Deloitte, 2016; Ernst & Young, 2015) refer to the negative effect of the so-called global economic downturn and the resultant effect on the demand for raw materials, such as metals and minerals, as well as oil and gas. Due to the interdependency between the global economy and the demand for raw materials, the mining industry has a formative and decisive impact on the political, economic, social and labour stability of countries. Durrant-Whyte, Geraghty, Pujol and Sellschop (2015:1), state as follow: “The global mining industry is under pressure. In the short term, falling commodity prices are squeezing cash flows. Looking ahead, many existing mines are maturing, resulting in the extraction of lower ore grades and longer-haul distances from the mine face; ore-body replacement rates are in decline, and new-mine-development times are increasing. On top of this, worldwide mining operations are as much as 28% less productive today than a decade ago – and that’s after adjusting for declining ore grades.”

The above-mentioned reality iterates the importance of innovative mining technologies to ensure long-term, and hence sustainable, profitability through a “reduction in production cost and an increase in operational efficiency at mining operations.” A report by the Business Monitor Index (2015) explains that innovative technologies in the mining industry will focus on four key areas as illustrated below:

  • “Human and external interface: Technology can be utilised to improve both mining operational management, and safety and environmental governance.
  • Internet of Things platforms and processors: Mining firms' operational efficiency will increase through the use of data analytics and processing.
  • Communication and controllers: Innovation through improving communication and controls will increase the availability for process control, asset monitoring, and safety and security for miners in harsh operating environments.
  • Apparatus: Apparatus innovation will improve operational efficiency and lower production costs by increasing fleet utilisation.”

The mining industry is in need of innovative technologies that will improve productivity without overextending physical (man) or machine (equipment) and, more importantly, natural resources (deposits). The focus should therefore rather be on working smarter and safer, than working harder.

Innovative mining technologies should, however, be critically assessed and evaluated to ascertain whether the adoption, implementation and eventual utilisation of these technologies would contribute to sustainable, safe and economically viable mining operations. Durrant-Whyte, et al. (2015) explains that five areas of digitisation exist for significant value creation in mining. These five areas are:

  • A deep understanding of the resource base
  • Optimisation of material and equipment flow
  • Improved anticipation of failures
  • Increased mechanisation through automation
  • Monitoring of real-time performance versus planning


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The above-mentioned five areas of digitisation will enable mining companies to make better informed decisions and enable them to operate in a safer and more consistent manner.

Lane (2016) concurs and states that Information Communication Technology (ICT) should be properly integrated with the concept of the mine as an integrated system in order to be effective. He (2016) explains as follow: “…mining should be viewed as a system because a mine is a system of interconnected activities comprising data, information, business practices, roles and responsibilities, as well as software applications.”

Mechanisation has been identified as a possible solution to address several challenges, which the mining industry is experiencing, including the need to increase productivity (Durrant-Whyte, et al., 2105; Hattingh, Sheer & Du Plessis, 2015). Deverell (2016) confirms the view of both Durrant-Whyte, et al. (2015) and Hattingh, Sheer and Du Plessis (2015), and indicates the benefit of mechanisation and automation as an example of innovative mining technologies, as follows:

“Innovation has also led to massive increases in output and productivity, shifting the sector from being heavily labour-intensive, to being increasingly mechanised and automated [on] a scale that would have been unimaginable in the past. For example, long wall coal mining, developed through a series of innovations in the 20th century, improved recovery rates and labour productivity by around 20%, while also dramatically improving worker safety.” 

Although the benefits of mechanisation have been deliberated extensively, it seems a comprehensive view on the effect of mechanisation on workers and communities is still lacking and hence necessitates more research.

Hattingh, Sheer and Du Plessis (2010: 255) indicate several additional issues relating to mechanisation, which need to be addressed: “Past experience with mechanization indicates that there are many issues, besides the physical technology and mine design and layout, which affect the success of mine mechanization projects. These include aspects, such as change management and leadership, availability of skills, training requirements, organisational structure, management, work planning and operation of mine, and relationships with supporting industries.” Hattingh, Sheer and Du Plessis (2010: 256) continue by indicating that: “A further significant impact of mechanization is the design and structure of the work practices in mines. Changing technology leads to changes in both the number of people employed directly in support of the production process, but also in their required skills and in the manner that work teams operate internally and interact with other teams and mine management. Equipment maintenance also becomes a much more critical aspect of successful production performance, employing far more people as technology advances.” 

Several industry studies (Fisher & Schnittger, 2012; Horberry & Lynas, 2012; McNab, Onate, Brereton, Horberry, Lynas & Franks, 2013; Mining Industry Skills Centre, n.d.) have reiterated that mechanisation will have an effect on both technical or engineering and human factors. These studies confirmed that mechanisation will have an effect on the following areas: Health and safety, psycho-social wellbeing of workers and [mining] community members, employment demographics, skills requirements, and the interaction between man and machine, or interface design.     

Kilian (2016) concurs and alludes to the changing nature of work and the work environment by stating that: “Further, compared with conventional hard rock mining, fewer people are needed underground, while [the] remote control places the operator in a climate-controlled cabin.” It is therefore evident that mechanisation will have an effect on the workplace and the requirements of workers and communities within these mechanised workplaces.

Botha (2015) agrees and states that: “Although the economic, operational and safety benefits of introducing mechanized and automated mining technologies could be substantial, there may be some undesired social factors associated with the adoption of these technologies. Furthermore, the nature of mechanized and automated technologies will alter the [physical] manner in which work is executed, as well as the interaction between man and machine.” Botha (2016) continues by indicating that five aspects need to be considered for inclusion in a framework that will guide health and safety management systems in a mechanised mining environment. These five highly interrelated components are:

  • The psychological aspects relating to mechanisation
  • The physiological aspects relating to mechanisation
  • The sustainability aspects relating to mechanisation;
  • The equipment reliability aspects relating to mechanisation
  • Risk management and critical controls relating to mechanisation

It is therefore evident that a need exists for a framework that will guide the mining industry to ensure that the interaction between humans and machines in a mechanised mining environment is integrated within health and safety management systems. This framework will ensure that mining companies are fully informed of the technical or engineering aspects related to mechanisation, without considering the impact thereof on employees and the communities surrounding mechanised mines.


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Chamber of Mines of Southern Africa (2016). 2016 Industry Safety Performance. MOSH Day of Learning on Incident Investigation. Johannesburg: Chamber of Mines of Southern Africa.

Botha, DF. (2015) Global trends and developments in mechanisation and automation with specific reference to health, safety and environment. Position paper prepared for the Chamber of Mines of Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Chamber of Mines of Southern Africa.

Business Monitor Index. (2015) Smart mining: key areas of innovation. INTERNET.  http://www.bmiresearch.com/news-and-views/smart-mining-the-key-areas-of-innovation

Deloitte. (2016) Tracking the trends 2016: The top 10 issues mining companies will face this year. INTERNET. http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/energy-and-resources/articles/tracking-the-trends.html

Deverell, J. (2016) Unlocking future innovation in mining. AUSIMM Bulletin. INTERNET. http://www.ausimmbulletin.com/feature/unlocking-future-innovation-in-mining

Durrant-Whyte, H, Geraghty, R, Pujol, F, & Sellschop, R. (2015) How digital innovation can improve mining productivity. INTERNET. http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/metals-and-mining/our-insights/how-digital-innovation-can-improve-mining-productivity

Ernst & Young. (2015) Business risks facing mining and metals 2015–2016. INTERNET. https://www.google.co.za/#q=ernst+and+young+mining

Fisher, BS and Schnittger, S (2012). Autonomous and Remote Operation Technologies in the Mining Industry: Benefits and Costs. BAEconomics Pty Ltd.

Hattingh, TS, Sheer, TJ & Du Plessis, AG. (2010) Human factors in mine mechanization. 4th International conference: Platinum in transition “Boom or bust”. Johannesburg: The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. 

Kilian, A. (2016) Caterpillar launches first continues miner for hard rock applications. INTERNET. http://www.miningweekly.com/print-version/caterpillar-launches-first-continuous-miner-for-hard-rock-applications-2016-08-10

Lane, G. (2016) Holistic approach needed to effectively implement new technologies in mining. INTERNET. http://www.miningweekly.com/article/holistic-approach-required-to-effectively-implement-new-technologies-in-mining-2016-01-15/rep_id:3650

Lynas, D and Horberry, T (2010). Exploring the Human Factors Challenges of Automated Mining    Equipment. Conference proceedings, November 2010. Human factors and Ergonomics Society of Australia.

McNab, K, Onate, B, Brereton, D, Horberry, T, Lynas, D, and Franks, DM (2013). Exploring the social dimensions of autonomous and remote operation mining: Applying Social License in Design. Prepared for CSIRO Minerals Down Under Flagship, Minerals Futures Collaboration Cluster, by the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining.

Mining Industry Skills Centre. (n.d.) Automation for success. Pinjarra Hills: CRC for Mining for the Mining Industry Skills Centre.


Topics: Risk management, Mining, Modernised

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