A benefit or hindrance?

Debate within the mining and natural resources sector from a wide range of stakeholders

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The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) has promoted an extensive debate within the mining and natural resources sector from a wide range of stakeholders

Those in favour are arguing that mechanisation, automation, and IoT will, ultimately benefit and improve the sector, while the detractors are concerned about possible job losses and the replacement of people by machines.

Whether these views are based on emotion or an objective analysis, is largely irrelevant in the face of the fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a reality and that sustainable ”mines of the future” will be heavily reliant on increased mechanisation, automation, IoT and AI. This applies as much to South Africa (and Africa for that matter) as it does to countries that are leading the way, particularly in relation to the use of electric vehicles, and the move away from reliance on fossil fuel-driven mining operations. Concerns regarding possible job losses cannot, of course, be dismissed—there will inevitably be a repositioning of job requirements and the skills required to perform the jobs in the future.

The mining and natural resources sector has, historically, been highly labour-intensive, with the sector being a large-scale employer. If the publication of the recent employment figures are anything to go by then, while the sector may have employed fewer people, it remains a significant employer and contributor to the growth, development and transformation in South Africa.

The mining and natural resources sector consists of a diverse range of employers from small-scale operations all the way through to complex, multi-site operations. The sector has, again, in 2018, had to grapple with significant challenges, including the international and domestic downturn, significant retrenchments, escalating costs and health and safety performances.

With the most significant number of fatal and other accidents in the sector been attributable to falls of ground and machinery-related accidents, the mining and natural resources sector has been reviewing its medium- to long-term mining strategy, with a strong emphasis on increased mechanisation and, ultimately, automation, which is becoming increasingly possible and practical due to the phenomenon of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, IoT and AI.

The sector appears to have embraced the Fourth Industrial Revolution, IoT, AI, and the understanding that without technological progress, it is unlikely to achieve its target of zero harm and the successful implementation of health and safety programmes in support of this.

Ultimately, technological progress will assist in creating sustainable mines of the future. The sector’s technology programmes are being accelerated, particularly those in relation to technology, which avoids the exposure of employees to adverse ground conditions and the interaction of people and machinery, to address these two aspects which significantly contribute to fatal and other accidents.

The current, key question is whether the technological progress can be applied to South Africa’s ”mature” mining and natural resources sector i.e. those mines that have been operating for decades, where the practical ability to reconfigure the workings is extremely challenging and limited because of the historical design and construction of these older mining operations. In order to address this question, it is important to focus on two aspects. The first is whether or not the primary causes of accidents in these older mines are broadly similar to the causes of accidents in the more modern mines and if not, are these unique causes, at the very least, capable of being addressed by technological advances?

The second aspect is whether these older mines, which will remain highly labour-intensive for the foreseeable future, can, because of the high number of employees required, practically address health and safety through technological advances.

Importantly, these older mines also face the significant challenge and pressure that is brought to bear by the government, trade unions and communities that are potentially affected by job losses at mines which, historically, have provided significant employment for people from not only ”doorstep” communities but also the areas commonly referred to as ”labour-sending areas”.

The multiplier effect can also not be ignored—it is widely accepted that, for each person working at a mine, up to 10 people depend on that employee in some form or another including direct income, expenditure on transportation, food etc., and support for micro- and small enterprises within the communities.

It seems that most of the fatal and other accidents that occur at older mines are as a result of falls of ground and interaction with machinery (predominately winches and their attachments, and underground rail bound equipment). In respect of both these categories, technological advances have significantly mitigated the potential for such accidents—the key issues, therefore, remain the implementation of and compliance with these technological advances, changing risk-taking behaviour and developing a more robust understanding of the consequences of risks in support of the move away from the ”normalisation” of risk-taking behaviour, more commonly referred to as complacency.

With common themes in many accidents being the training and behavioural aspects, the primary aim of implementing technological improvements is to avoid over-reliance on human behaviour and to implement what is commonly referred to as a ”hard barrier”, which excludes the need for human intervention. Examples include personnel/machinery warning and anti-collision systems, which do not rely on intervention by the operator, bringing the machinery to a stop before the interaction occurs.

While technological advances will assist, in the interim, it is essential for all stakeholders to go “back to basics”. As its starting point, the Back to Basics programme should have the identification of the health and safety responsibilities, which are placed on the stakeholders by the provisions of, primarily, the Mine Health and Safety Act, No. 29 of 1996 (MHSA) and the various regulations, which are enforced in terms of the MHSA. Unfortunately, it is disappointing that there is often a lack of understanding of legal responsibilities, which are placed on key stakeholders and, critically, those people who manage and supervise work.

No health and safety programme is complete without a component, which ensures that management and supervisory personnel are competent to hold the management and supervisory position i.e. that they are fully familiar with the MHSA and regulations, the working areas, and that they know and understand the hazards to which people are exposed, when allocating tasks.

The “back to basics” approach requires the employers and other stakeholders to, at the very least, focus on the following: conducting appropriate identification and risk assessments comprising baseline, issued based and continuous hazard identification and risk assessments; implementing the appropriate measures to address the identified hazards and assessed risks, comprising of codes of practice, standards, procedures and instructions; implementing a comprehensive health and safety training and communication system, and that communicating the hazards and measures to address the hazards; appointing competent supervisors whose task it is to implement the first three components; implementing an over inspection system, which is designed to ”close the loop”; and implementing contractor management systems, which are aligned with the previous five components.

It is possible, given the high-labour intensity of certain aspects of the mining and natural resources sector, that the move to significant mechanisation and automation may not be practical in the near term, or its implementation may be delayed, emphasising the need to implement and maintain health and safety programmes that focus on ”back to basics” in the interim.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution remains an important opportunity for the mining and natural resources sector to contribute meaningfully to a sustainable, safe and healthy sector. Importantly, it also remains an opportunity to redesign the way in which mining operations are conducted, with the consequential redesigning of the workforce to align it with the new working environment.

I am not, for a moment, suggesting that this is going to happen overnight. However, stakeholders in the sector should acknowledge the opportunity and implement programmes of change that are practical and implementable, taking into account the particular circumstances at a mine, the profile of its workforce, the surrounding communities and, of course, the practical challenges associated with some of the older mines and their infrastructure. 

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