Mining Can Become a Zero-Harm Industry
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Mining Can Become a Zero-Harm Industry

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Paloma Duran By Paloma Duran | Journalist and Industry Analyst - Tue, 08/24/2021 - 14:47

Mining is among the most dangerous industries in the world. Globally, there are more than 15,000 mining-related deaths per year. However, mining is not necessarily unsafe. The industry has significantly reduced its death and injury rates by improving its standards and technologies. Although the zero-harm goal has not been reached, companies are getting closer.

"If a company cannot mine safely, it should not mine at all. Health and safety need to be central to all mining and metals operations and processes to eliminate workplace-related fatalities, injuries and disease," ICMM said in a statement.

Mining’s physical environment, materials and activities all pose a risk to the safety, health and well-being of its workers. According to World Counts, the mining sector is responsible for around 15,000 worker deaths per year. The most common accidents in mining are related to structural failure, rockslides, transportation, machinery, energy isolation, falling objects, working at height, fires and explosions, confined spaces and hazardous material, among others.

Despite the many risks associated with mining, activities can be done safely. Companies can prevent accidents by incorporating effective risk management into their activities. ICMM says that procedures and safety frameworks are not universal, however. They must be adapted to the conditions of the mine and the workers. “Safety requires leadership, investment and an unwavering commitment to the goal of zero harm with a priority toward zero fatalities,” said ICMM in a statement.

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced many challenges to mining companies, including protecting employee health while maintaining productivity. Companies were forced to reconfigure their workforce and adapt to new work dynamics, resulting in the increased adoption of new technologies that improve safety and productivity across the industry, Deloitte reported. 

“New technologies are improving occupational health and safety conditions. For instance, workers can digitally visualize underground operations from remote-control rooms, significantly reducing their exposure to risks and hazards,” Isabelle Ramdoo, Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainability, told MBN.

Mining Safety in Mexico

For its part, the Mexican mining sector has constantly sought to prevent risks and accidents by applying more rigorous standards and procedures that allow mines to be productive without neglecting their personnel, CAMIMEX said in its 2020 report on sustainability. In 2019, CAMIMEX members reported an incidence rate of 1.24 accidents per 100 workers, which shows a reduction of 24 percent against 2018 records. The incidence rate in the sector is 36 percent below the national average. Only three sectors present a better rate than the mining sector: public administration services and social security with 1.23; construction, reconstruction and assembly of transport equipment with 1.11 and professional and technical services with 1.10, reported CAMIMEX.

CAMIMEX affiliated companies also invested MX$1.5 billion (US$75.086 million) to improve the safety of their employees in 2019. Likewise, mining personnel logged 1,204,385 hours of mining-related training, as well as 59,018 hours of training in labor rights. Regarding workers' health, 63,978 medical examinations were carried out among employees from companies affiliated to CAMIMEX. In addition, there are epidemiological health surveillance programs for miners based on NOM-023-STPS-2012, since in addition to hearing and respiratory diseases, miners are at risk of pneumoconiosis, dorsopathy and arthritis, among other ailments.

However, there are still some health and safety gaps that need to be addressed in Mexico. In 2019, a total of 20 fatal accidents were registered by CAMIMEX, which were investigated to establish the causes and implement actions to prevent such accidents from happening again. “Despite security standards and safety parameters for companies, Mexico still has a high mortality rate due to accidents that could have been prevented. Several companies have high security standards; however, there are others that do not enforce the same protocols and unfortunately, these are where most accidents occur,” says Carlos Villacian, Director of Business Unit Latin America North at MSA Safety.

Recently, an accident was reported in a coal mine in the municipality of Muzquiz, Coahuila. Seven miners lost their lives after becoming trapped in the mine, owned by coal producer Gerardo Nájera. The conditions of the mine had previously been denounced by employees and organizations. According to the Coahuila Ministry of Labor, the miners were trapped in the tunnels due to a flood. Villacian told MBN that the government must strengthen and enforce national regulations to avoid accidents that could have been prevented. In addition, he stressed that mining companies must always identify in which areas they can improve the safety of their operations to avoid future fatalities or accidents.

In another accident, Santacruz Silver reported a worker had died at its Rosario Mine. Carlos Silva, CEO of Santacruz Silver, told MBN that the accident occurred in a filling phase after the company changed the operating system to make it safer. However, the water had weakened the rock, causing the accident. “We understand that mining is a high-risk industry and as a result, we invest heavily in equipment and technologies to protect our people. More than safety, we believe in prevention; we learn from these experiences to avoid future accidents.”

Depending on Data, Automation

The COVID-19 pandemic put safety and health in the spotlight for many industries, including mining. The dynamics and working conditions changed completely under the pandemic, leading mining companies to accelerate the adoption of new technologies. Fully and partially autonomous mining technologies appear increasingly in demand to handle some of the hazardous work in mining.

“Reducing the in-pit and underground mining workforce by moving people to control centers will increase health and safety and create new types of job opportunities, which should benefit local communities and make the operations more sustainable,” says Jarkko Ruokojärvi, Director of Automation Global Business Development and Marketing at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions. “Automation, digitalization and electrification will form the future of mining, especially as they provide new opportunities to increase safety and productivity, as well as making operations more sustainable.”

However, the implementation of these new technologies faces some resistance in the sector due to fears of a significant reduction in job opportunities, a fear many experts say is misguided. “A misconception is that automation systems replace human jobs, when in fact, you get better safety and quality in the operation and the equipment needs to be maintained by human operators anyway. The people who get replaced by an automated system are moved to an area where they are more effective,” says Jorge Luis Cristerna Medina, Operations Manager at Multiled.

Whichever way they get they there, mining companies are moving relentlessly toward the goal of zero-harm. Deloitte experts, however, say this will only be achieved if incidents are prevented before they occur. “To reach zero harm, most companies must consequently go far beyond their current practices. The next generation of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) seem to be the answer to move significantly toward zero harm,” Deloitte experts wrote in an Insights article on the company’s website.

And while advanced analytics suggest the collection of massive amounts of safety data, this too is insufficient because companies often collect it after an accident. What is needed is a greater understanding of the circumstances and drivers of these incidents. According to the Deloitte article, the main obstacle is the lack of integration, since many solutions are disconnected and isolated, which limits their utility. “The solution is closer than we think. If mining companies work together to share data, we could be on the verge of building truly predictive safety models, designing a fully integrated wearable solution and laying the foundation for the next generation of predictive safety systems.”

Photo by:   Americas Gold and Silver

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