Maximising mines through techno tools
Personal protective equipment (PPE) and detection instrumentation play a huge part in maintaining worker health and well-being in the mining industry. But these safety tools have problems of their own.
The issuing and use of PPE is stringently controlled by rigorous legislation and costs mines millions. However, these safety tools are sometimes exploited through fraudulent activities, which negatively impact an industry that employs thousands of people.
A source at a leading mine, who spoke to SHEQ MANAGEMENT on condition of anonymity, explains: “The biggest problem we have in mining is that people are trying to get their hands on PPE stock to sell for personal gain.”
This can have huge repercussions on the operational costs of mines as the PPE for an average employee costs around R150 per month. And that’s only the cost for those working in the mine. For those working in a plant it’s R350 and for those in a smelter it’s R500.
So that is a huge quantity of PPE, and a lot of money, that goes into the whole mining operation. However, some mines spend 20 percent more than the average. It all depends on how lenient they are, or how much control they have, with regard to the handout of their PPE.
But technological breakthroughs are offering ways to fight fraud through better management and more control, which is achieved with on-site PPE management systems that determine issuing protocols (IP), which stipulate the rules of supplying PPE.
These techno tools allow mines that determine the specific needs for each employee in line with their specific job requirements. They monitor the products that each mineworker takes and list how frequently each item is issued.
Our source notes: “Basically, the advantage is that we now have proper control of our PPE system. We know what the issues are and where it is going, so we can pinpoint its misuse.” And the mine can do this in real time as the IP are supported by an IT system that monitors all PPE issues and usage, storing historical data in various formats.
This is immediately available on an onsite computer but, because of the remote locations of mine sites, the information is only backed-up at the end of each day – providing access from one central point.
But the management system is geared to more than catching fraudsters, as we are told: “Certain items are made to work for a specific period of time. So, if someone uses something for only a week that is supposed to last for a month, we are able to determine that as well.” The opposite also applies. For example, if someone uses something for a month that should last for only a week, management can pick this up through the system.
Of course, this raises the question of whether employees are using the PPE incorrectly which, at the end of the day, is dangerous to the person using it. The system therefore makes it possible for the mine to identify if certain aspects of a job need to have alternative PPE, enabling it to make better decisions and to save money along the way.
As for detection instrumentation, one of the biggest challenges is worker apathy. “Workers are sceptical about wearing the equipment,” explains John Wernick, managing director of AMS Haden Instrument & Mining Services – a manufacturer, importer and distributor of various environmental monitoring instruments. “Some believe that it may be recording their conversations and movements.”
According to Wernick, the other side of the coin is that the wrong instruments could lead to a false sense of security. “In the case of flammable and toxic gases this can be life threatening. In the case of toxic airborne pollutants the resulting diseases are mostly irreversible and can also be life threatening if undetected at an early stage.”
Another problem is that the instrumentation sometimes adds extra weight to the workers’ load and can, at times, be a hindrance in the workplace. “Manufacturers need to focus on making the equipment as small, light and ergonomic as possible,” emphasises Wernick.
Here too technology has played its part as the trend in detection instruments has been towards digital micro electronics. “This has led to smaller instruments with multiple functions,” notes Wernick. “And significant strides have been made in the field of power sources.”
He adds that, in terms of functionality, instrumentation has evolved in the areas of data logging and data transfer to software programmes. “This assists in the production of reports and graphics that make the interpretation of data and identification of trends easier and more meaningful,” Wernick points out. “This means that the instrument’s software package is as important as the instrument itself.”
And, according to Wernick, given the groundswell of technical innovation in digital techniques and power sources, there is an exciting future ahead for detection instrumentation. “I envisage smaller, lighter and much smarter instruments in the future.”
So, although PPE and detection instruments still have some challenges, the future of these safety tools looks promising – which means greater health and safety for mines the world over.