Modern mining: high-tech and safer than ever!
Nowadays a miner’s most important tools are a joystick or tablet, which are used to control everything from drilling and blasting in underground cavities, to loading and crushing the mined ore. And mines are safer than ever before … well, certainly in Sweden that is!
Earlier this year, I attended HSE Excellence Europe, a brilliant health and safety conference in Frankfurt. It was a superb event, and I met many fascinating people there. Per Renman, group safety director at Boliden in Sweden, was one; he really opened my eyes when it comes to modern mining techniques in that country. Incredibly, they are now making use of drones and Wi-Fi!
Improved technology obviously means efficiency benefits, but these moves are being made in order to improve safety, too. Like many other Swedish companies, Boliden is obsessed with safety. It needs to be; its core competences are within the fields of exploration, mining, smelting and metals recycling. Some of those can be quite hazardous.
Boliden operates six mining areas and five smelters in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Ireland. It has a total of approximately 4 900 employees and, according to CEO, Lennart Evrell, too many employees and contractors continue to be injured at work. “We can never accept that,” he insists.
Renman agrees. “Boliden has come a long way, but, to achieve our objective of an accident-free workplace, we have to work even harder on the human factor,” he says.
Some 40 years ago, the mining industry topped accident statistics for Swedish workplaces. Since then, conscious efforts in terms of personal safety and technology have led to many of the most dangerous manual work processes being abandoned, while physical protection has been introduced to eliminate the risk of collapse and similar dangers.
“Today, statistically speaking, it is no more dangerous to work in mines, or at smelters, than any other workplace. The transport industry, the agricultural sector and the construction industry, for example, all have considerably higher accident figures,” says Renman.
However, he does point out that you should never lose respect for the risks associated with handling large material flows, heavy machinery, chemicals and, in some cases, high temperatures.
At Boliden’s facilities, continuous technical improvement of machinery and equipment has led to innovations such as more efficient ventilation systems and an option to remotely control underground machinery, as well as better flameproof protective clothing for hot work and a more reliable communications system using radio and mobile telephony.
“Overall, the transition from heavy physical labour to automated machine work has contributed enormously to reducing the number of risks and serious accidents. We have also introduced explicit procedures, a work environment management system and improved information, which have further increased the level of safety. However, the most difficult step, which we are still working hard on, is behaviour-based safety,” says Renman, explaining that the starting point for these efforts is understanding that the majority of incidents that occur today have a strong link to the human factor.
Tiredness and stress can, for example, cause employees to take short cuts – and, in some cases, disregard regulations and protective equipment – with the best of intentions; for instance, keeping production going.
“However, safety comes before all else. Anyone experiencing the least doubt about an element of their work should always stop what they’re doing, so as not to expose themselves or others to risks. This is an important aspect of the strong safety culture we are currently promoting throughout the company,” says Renman.
He emphasises the importance of involving all employees in this work and explains that, fundamentally, it is about being considerate towards one another. Under a common slogan, BSafe, Boliden is encouraging all employees and contractors working at the company’s facilities to report risky situations as soon as they are identified.
In addition, all incidents are to be reported and the underlying causes analysed in order to constantly identify new risks and avoid similar incidents happening again. Renman points out that Boliden’s active preventive risk work has been given the highest priority for a number of reasons.
“Everyone is entitled to a safe and healthy work environment. There is also a direct link between good safety and profitability. If you cannot manage work environment issues, then you won’t be able to run a business that is sustainable in the long term. There are no short cuts to an accident-free workplace,” he insists.
Machines replace people
One of the ways in which Boliden is striving for an accident-free future is via the introduction of automation. “Modern mines are becoming increasingly digitised. The most utopian image of a future mine is void of any human activity; instead there are only machines controlled remotely from somewhere else, which could, in principle, be anywhere in the world. No one knows if this will really happen, but what is certain is that mine production will be safer, cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally friendly,” Renman reports.
Boliden is currently investing in wireless networks and advanced positioning technology that will make the company’s mines some of the safest, most modern and most productive in the world. “Increased automation also means that, in the future, ore can be mined at greater depths, which is becoming increasingly important because that is where tomorrow’s ore deposits are located,” he notes.
Remote control and automation will have a profound effect on safety. “Safer access-control procedures using positioning will make work easier, and, if an accident does happen, it will be possible to communicate with personnel and guide them to the nearest rescue chamber. The fact that machines can now be controlled remotely will enable personnel to work at a distance to a much greater extent, including from control rooms above ground,” Renman points out.
The working environment is getting better all the time, too. “Air quality in the mines is constantly monitored and automated solutions provide scope for developing ventilation further still, which saves money and improves the work environment down in the mine. In the event of a fire, it will also be possible to control the ventilation in order to shorten the duration of the fire and reduce the risk of it spreading. Constant machine monitoring can also help to improve control of maintenance work and provide better feedback to the operators about how work is progressing,” he reveals.
Much of this innovation is thanks to the incorporation of technology – Wi-Fi, for instance. Take Kristineberg, the oldest active mine in the Boliden area, while it’s long in the tooth, it’s anything but antiquated; in fact, it’s one of Boliden’s most modern mines. A 35-km long wireless network has been installed in the mine, which is now used for all communication.
“People communicate using telephones, which handle voice communications, text messages and alarms. The system also operates as a positioning system where everything is tagged – humans and machines can be located in real time on a 3D map of the mine. Similar systems are now being introduced in a number of Boliden’s other mining areas,” says Renman.
Improvements in connectivity have massive safety benefits. For instance, an evacuation function is now being developed that the operator can activate in an emergency. This sorts employees into three categories: red, yellow and green. Rescue efforts are then managed accordingly.
“Red indicates that a person has not been alerted to the danger. In this case, a runner is sent out to warn the employee. Yellow means a person has been alerted, but has not acknowledged the alert. If this happens, we ring the employee to ensure that he or she has understood the alarm and is proceeding to a rescue chamber.
“Green means that a person has received and acknowledged the alert, and we can follow them on the system until they reach the rescue chamber,” explains Samuel Bäckman, a work-environment development engineer at Boliden Mines.
Drones take over
Boliden is making increasing use of drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Initially used by the military for reconnaissance, transport and raids, drones are used regularly in any number of non-military applications, particularly within the mining industry with its large tracts of land.
“At Boliden we use the drone predominantly to photograph areas that would otherwise be too large to cover using traditional means. The images, or the 3D model that is produced using them, is used for exploration, for updating maps, or performing volume calculations,” says Shane Leighton, a development engineer at Boliden Mines’ engineering department and the project manager for Boliden’s UAV.
The design of Boliden’s drone, a e-Bee RTK, is deceptively simple. The streamlined shape of the body and the detachable wings are made from a styrofoam-like material, and the total weight, including the camera and battery, is just 730 grams.
This makes it very portable. Disassembled it can fit into a specially built box that can be packed in normal hand luggage. The low weight also means that it is easy to handle. You can simply pick the drone up, shake it three times and throw it up into the air.
Boliden is also carrying out trials with a helicopter drone in order to inspect mine faces more safely. Thanks to live streaming to a tablet mounted on the control unit, the operator can see the high-resolution image and follow the progress of the drone along the mine. Sensors, like those on modern smartphones, and a camera pointing downwards, keep the drone on a stable flight path.
“We see how drones are being used for more and more tasks. The Skellefteå Kraft energy company uses them for inspecting power lines, for example, and Amazon in the United States has started trials of delivering goods directly to the homes of purchasers.
“At present, Boliden is testing drones above ground to survey roads and piles of materials, as well as underground to inspect rock faces. In future, drones will even be able to locate people in the event of an accident or fire,” predicts Peter Burman, manager of Boliden’s mine automation programme.
“One thing is certain: this technology is here to stay and we have only seen the beginning of this development, which will affect us at work and at home,” Burman believes.
Another thing is certain, too: thanks to its passion for safety and its innovative thinking, this Swedish company is well down the road to achieving its goal of zero accidents. Take a bow, Boliden!