Mitigating mining disasters


The mining industry comes with multiple health risks, some more serious than others. Which is why the South African Mining industry is committed to a principle, they refer to as (Goal zero harm), its main aim is to ensure that every mine worker returns home unharmed every day. The Minerals Council South Africa together with mining companies plan to achieve the objectives of this occupational safety approach by implementing safe working systems and increasing strict safety regulations.

When many people think of mining, they immediately picture dark shafts riddled with dirt and human beings going beneath the earth’s surface, confronted with great risk, just so they can secure the precious jewels that we so desperately need and at times desire. The perception on mining is very different from that of jewellery stores, which are considered more glamorous and enticing to walk into.

This is why over the years there has been a continuous effort to make mining a more secure and safe form of employment. Not only does it contribute immensely to the country’s GDP but mining also helps feed multiple households within South Africa.

There are multiple dangers in the mining industry, amongst the most prevalent are the following health and safety risks: A common fear among mine workers is the ongoing inhalation of coal dust, as this can cause black lung disease. Over time safety measures were taken to prevent this but occasionally new cases occur among miners. Techniques like the use of air ventilators, water sprays and the regular cleaning of coal dust lying on the surface are used to prevent coal dust explosions. An array of dust-buster agents including binders, foams and antioxidants are also being developed to mitigate the chances of coal dust related disasters.

The noise in mines, from the constant drilling and heavy machinery could potentially cause hearing loss. Whole body vibration is also another major problem mine workers face, which is caused by spending too much time sitting on machinery. Over exposure to Ultra Violet radiation puts mine workers at a huge risk of skin cancer. Musculoskeletal disorders that stem from ongoing heavy lifting or mining accidents. Mine workers are exposed to harmful chemicals on a daily basis and are also at great risk of chronic illnesses like TB, HIV and AIDS.

Mining Health and Safety in South Africa is governed by Act 29 of the1996 Mine Health and Safety Act and the Mineral Resources sector is primarily regulated by the statute in terms of the mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002.

The previously separate portfolios, mining and energy were merged in 2019. In March of the same year, the (Mining Charter III) was introduced and its main goal was to significantly increase Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) threshold in terms of requirements, with regards to ownership, procurement and employment equity.

The state is the custodian of South Africa’s Mineral and Petroleum resources and is tasked with administering these resources accordingly for the benefit all South Africans. When it comes to environmental issues in mining, the Department of Forestry and Fisheries drafts all legislation and regulations governing mining and environmental issues.

The Minerals Council of South Africa was tasked with the responsibility of providing expert advice and support to members in respect of safety in the mining industry. Its key activities include supporting the Tripartite Action Plan for the elimination of silicosis and noise-induced hearing loss, the tripartite HIV and AIDS Plan for stopping the spread of HIV in the industry. It also supports the SADC Declaration on Tuberculosis (TB) in the Mining Sector adopted by heads of state in 2012. There are many recent industry initiatives on TB such as improving continuum of care, referral for employees and the implementation of the TB Review Tool for auditing TB programmes.

The South African Health Department participates in the following industry committees: Ministry of Health Services and Regulation (MHSC), Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act of 1973 Advisory Committee and South African National AIDS Council. The South African government developed the National Development Plan (NDP) which aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030. The objectives of the NDP appear to have similar interest to a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which show how aligned the Government is with regard to the implementation of the SDGs.

Mining companies committed to the SDGs will benefit from better relationships with the Government, civil society, communities and other stakeholders. Those that fail to engage meaningfully with the SDGs stand to put their operations at risk long-term. Numerous opportunities exist for the mining industry to contribute to the SDGs.

Conventional mining is not only unsafe but it is also expensive, the use of technology, is bringing about change in the industry, however mining is still a labour extensive exercise. South Africa is one of the most prominent mining country in the world, a wide range of technologies are being used to mine more efficiently, reducing underground risks.

Among the most promising innovative technologies to prevent fatal mining accidents such as drilling, blasting, loading and hauling at deep undergrounds is automated underground mining. It can be performed using unmanned vehicles and machines operated from a remote location. Apart from efficiency and productivity, the biggest advantage of mine automation is the fact that humans can be kept out of harm’s way. Mining companies around the world are either using or considering to use automated mining technologies.

De Beers Finsch diamond mine in the Northern Cape, South Africa, Codelco’s El Teniente copper mine in Chile and Rio Tinto’s West Angelas Mine in the Pilbara region, Australia, are among the first underground mines to adopt automated haulage and transport systems. Rio Tinto has announced that it will deploy the world’s biggest underground automation system for block caving operations at the Argyle underground diamond mine.

Spatial data visualisation like three-dimensional (3D) modelling supports mines by reimaging it more efficiently. Automated drones are used to perform operational tasks and improve the industry by providing services like measuring stockpile inventory, site mapping, surveilling hazardous areas and asset management.

They are a few processes in underground mining such as rock bolting and pillar recovery, which are prone to rock-falls and rib-fall related injuries. Which is why Automated Temporary Roof Support (ATRS), Mobile Roof Supports (MRS), and Automated Roof Bolting systems, involving self-drilling injectable rock bolts are some of the new technologies that currently protecting miners against such injuries. Companies such as Fletcher, JOY, Hilti and Orica are at the forefront in producing a range of such solutions.

Another interestingly promising technology capable of preventing roof falls effectively in underground hard rock mines is Paste backfill. The paste backfill material prepared by mixing tailings with appropriate proportions of cement and water is transported underground using a pipeline for vertical roof support, ground and pillar support, pillar recovery, and for creating working platforms.

Collision between machinery or between machinery and personnel is one of the common causes of accidents in underground as well as open pit mines. Proximity detection technology can be installed on mobile machinery to detect the presence of personnel or machinery within a certain distance of the machine.

NIOSH developed an active proximity warning system, called the Hazardous Area Signalling and Ranging Device (HASARD), for warning workers through visual, audible and vibratory indicators as they approach dangerous areas around heavy mining equipment. Caterpillar has also developed detection technology called Cat Detect Personnel that features as one of the five sub-modules of its integrated mining management suite Cat MineStar. The technology involving RFID tags worn by the workers and the detectors mounted over the machines to warn operators with audio and visual indications of possible collisions, speeding or rollovers.

Effective management of a permit-to-work system is critical to mine safety as it tracks the authorisations and competencies of employees while identifying the key risks involved with a particular job. A computerised permit-to-work system collating all required documentation for specific types of work, taking into account the specific identified hazards and the precautions needed to be taken by workers, is helpful in ensuring mine safety at the work authorisation level.

ApplyIT, is a good example, as the South African software company, developed a permit-to-work authentication system called IntelliPERMIT that integrates all aspects of permits-to-work, access control and risk assessment, it tracks the authorisation levels of each employee at work, and ties permits into access control with biometric fingerprint identification.

Long working hours cause distraction from exhaustion, causing accidents. The technology, capable of constantly detecting the onset of fatigue and micro sleeps in the operators and creating an alert for them, is helpful in preventing such accidents.

Seeing Machine, an Australian company, has developed fatigue monitoring systems called Driver Safety System (DSS) using patented eye and head tracking technology. The DSS comprises of a dash-mounted camera constantly detecting the fatigue and distraction in the driver’s eyes. Caterpillar entered into an agreement with Seeing Machine to market the fatigue monitoring system in March 2013.

There are many dangers in the mining industry but the policies and use of technology were designed to make the mining environment, not only profitable but safe for South African miners.

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