Blog post

Technology: still the next big leap forward in mine safety

Mark has just returned to the UK from Australia, where he attended the Minesafe International Conference 2022, organised by the Australasian Institute of Mining & Metallurgy. In this post, he explains why technology is the key to zero deaths in mining.

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contact-Mark Fraser

Mark Fraser

Account Director

Australia leads the world in mine safety; it has already enacted and enforces much of what can be enacted and enforced in respect of legislation, regulation, policy, risk management and culture. As a result – and as one of the presenters at the Minesafe International 2022 Conference that I’ve just attended pointed out – mining deaths and injuries in Australia have fallen steadily over many years.

Until the last few years, that is: after years of heading downwards, the line on the graph recording incidents and accidents has plateaued. In recent years, the number of incidents and deaths are sometimes up slightly, and sometimes down slightly, despite the ongoing (and absolutely correct) target of zero deaths. Given everything that has been done to eliminate mining accidents, it’s tempting to interpret this as meaning there’s a baseline level of incidents that no amount of legislation or workplace culture can prevent – truly unforeseeable incidents that an insurance company might categorise as ‘force majeure’ or ‘act of god’.

Digitalisation is key to a safer mine

As someone with a background in the economics of commodities and especially metals, I’m aware that this interpretation isn’t entirely accurate or inaccurate. In theory, all mines could – with the technology available today – be made people-free zones and therefore free of people-related incidents and accidents. But, of course, this would take simply vast sums of money and is therefore impossible to achieve economically. It’s true that new mines can more economically be built to be autonomous or remotely operated. But, generally speaking, mining needs people on site. So, while mining is doing well in respect of safety, how can we do better? How can we disrupt the plateauing numbers, and send them trending towards zero once again?

Clearly the conference organisers think the same way that I do – and Axora does – because one session of the conference was devoted to what I and the mining industry already know the answer to be: technology. Technology will be the source of the next big leap forward in mine safety; indeed, one presenter was most explicit, stating that “Digitalisation is key to a safer mine”.

The reality is that there is no single technological solution that any mine operator can implement to help reduce risk, incidents and accidents reach zero

At first sight, the casual observer might have been struck by the substantial gap between the big safety issues of workplace culture, regulation, policy, risk management, etc. – amounting to statements of “this is what we need to do” – that dominated most of the conference, and the solutions that were presented at the conference, which tended to address very specific mine safety issues.

The reality is that there is no single technological solution that any mine operator can implement to help reduce risk, incidents and accidents reach zero, any more than there’s such a thing as an ‘average’ or typical mine. There is no magic bullet, no ‘one solution’ that can improve performance by 100%.

We don’t just take on the hard work out of finding, evaluating and deploying the very best technology-based safety solutions in the world; by some measures we make it possible

Instead, all around the world, hundreds of inspired developers have imagined, built, tested, deployed and proved the value of often-niche mining safety solutions, each of which may improve safety performance by one, two, three, four per cent (or whatever). To me, the route forward is clear: further progress towards zero incidents/zero deaths is only achievable through the judicious selection and implementation of multiple safety solutions that address the specific safety issues and needs of any given mining operation.

The safety solutions you’re looking for right now might have been developed anywhere in the world; how will you know if it exists, or if/how well it works? This is where Axora comes in: we don’t just take on the hard work out of finding, evaluating and deploying the very best technology-based safety solutions in the world; by some measures we make it possible. We continually scour the world for proven solutions that address the safety challenges faced by heavy industry and, currently, have over 170 tried-and-tested solutions on our marketplace. We have solutions like this AI-driven incident prevention solution, which uses cameras to predict safety incidents before they happen and takes less than one second to issue a warning; and this ‘extended reality’ platform which reduces safety training time by 40% while improving learning retention, improving employee ‘safety performance’ by 70%.

And not just solutions: because mining safety conferences tend to be annual, we’ve also fostered an active (and growing) online community of industry professionals, which is keen and able to discuss the safety challenges of the day, and ways to meet those challenges. Ground-breaking solutions for ground-breaking businesses, so to speak!

Mine safety and mine productivity/cost-efficiency are not conflicting priorities; they can, in fact, be mutually reinforcing

Now, I mentioned earlier that Australia leads the world in terms of mining safety. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which that Australia is a stable democracy with fully developed and operational regulatory and legal systems. There are excellent levels of oversight and serious consequences for non-compliance. This is far from the case in many other parts of the world. What, then, should motivate mining operators in such environments to invest in safety solutions?

Well, first, lives everywhere matter, and there’s no hiding any more. Information and news travels globally, reputations matter, and no world-class miner should apply different standards of safety simply because they can. But, if for any reason that should be insufficiently compelling, try this: solutions that deliver improved mine safety also tend to improve productivity, sustainability and cost metrics.

For example: poor maintenance regimes of massive mining hardware can result in failures that cost lives and bring productivity to a crashing halt. AI-based technology solutions already exist to predict and therefore pre-empt such failures, preventing incidents and ensuring continuous operations. Yes: mine safety and mine productivity/cost-efficiency are not conflicting priorities; they can, in fact, be mutually reinforcing. Everybody lives, everybody wins.

And, of course, technology is now critical to improving it all.

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