Different approaches needed for mine safety

September 7th, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT, Articles: PositionIT, Articles: Vector

The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s (SAIMM) MineSafe conference on 30 and 31 August 2017 saw mining companies, commercial entities, union representatives and universities gather to discuss new approaches to mine safety.

This year’s theme was “Striving for zero harm – driving excellence through compliance”.

Technological solutions such as 3D laser scanning, rock engineering practices, seismology studies and explosion suppression were discussed alongside proposed workplace, procedural and leadership changes that are needed.

Dr. Ronny Webber-Youngman from the University of Pretoria presented on forensic laser scanning for mining incident investigations. His presentation received attention for the technology’s potential to reconstruct and document incidents quickly, accurately and in high detail in ways that conventional surveys cannot. In doing so it aids in understanding the situation and the ways in which hazards materialise into incidents.

3D scanning also captures critical information otherwise be lost due to subjective interpretations of what is important in the scene, which often only later emerge as relevant or important. Remote operation of scanners is another benefit, as it removes staff from dangerous accident scenes, said Dr. Webber-Youngman.

A panel discussion with Cornelia Holtzhausen, Snoekie Madida, Pierre Jordaan, and Abrie Jansen van Vuuren.


This technology further opens the possibility of remote access to incident scenes, such as via unmanned aerial vehicles or other robotic devices onto which 3D scanners can be mounted. The ability to link other data to 3D models is also valuable for forensic work, said Dr. Webber-Youngman. He also suggested that further work be done on establishing best practices for using 3D scanners for forensic work.

Other research and poster presentations also looked to find proactive ways to dealing with mine safety.

Ray Durrheim from the University of the Witwatersrand considered ways to mitigate seismic risks, a study done in collaboration with Japanese universities. The research, spread across three sites in South Africa where faults were actively sought out, aimed to identify triggers of seismic events and study the nature of these events. So far the study has helped develop sensing techniques to help humans to sound the roof of underground tunnels to determine week spots more accurately, something the team hopes will soon be possible to do remotely.

Since predicting seismic events are not yet possible, good mine design and other preventative measures remains best practice for the time being.

To deal with the uncertainty and risk in rock engineering design, William Jonghim from SRK Consulting SA looked at risk-based design using a probability of failure approach, as opposed to deterministic methods which don’t address the many variables and unknowns of mining environments. This exposure risk model takes temporal and spatial coincidence into account, with more data inputs making it more effective. Defining the acceptance criteria and time period of estimation are key to this approach. He also said that risk should be benchmarked against societal risk guidelines, something he said the nuclear industry does.

Other technologies on show were Kutta’s digital underground radio systems and wireless remote alert system, as well as ExploSpot’s active explosion suppression barriers.

Kutta’s digital underground radio systems are different to ultra/very high frequency radio (UHF/VHF) in that they operate at a single frequency, making it useful for emergencies, as Kutta’s Geoffrey Simms explained. The systems’ ability to use any conductor to transmit information also means it can be used in areas where formal communications have not yet been established.

Another proactive safety measure is active explosion suppression barriers. ExploSpot’s Percy van Zyl showed how active explosion suppression barriers work in fiery mines, and how it can help limit miners’ exposure when explosions occur. Explosion suppression barriers are mounted on machinery, such as near the cutter head, and can be triggered between 10 and 300 milliseconds after an explosion. The suppressant is fired through nozzles to create a full barrier that limits the flame’s intensity by removing the fuel and oxygen that the explosion needs to propagate, and in doing so drastically reduces the temperature of the explosion and fire propagation that harm miners.

Technology however is not the only solution to safety concerns, and several presentations focused on how behavioural and leadership changes can lead to safer work environments by helping to improve confidence, performance and commitment.

Johan Uys from the University of Pretoria proposed a new four-dimensional leadership model to address the uncertainty and complexity that accompany the mechanisation and modernisation of mining. The model rethinks contemporary command and control leadership methods by incorporating a physiological element. By doing this, it looks to develop leaders with a balance of behavioural and conation skills, emotion and affect, as well as cognitive and rationality skills, and direction.

The university has already adapted its training model to help produce more mature leaders – it’s short courses are no longer merely two to three days long, but spread out month-to-month to help entrench knowledge and develop emotional intelligence.

Sasol Mining’s Snoekie Madida discussed behaviour interventions such as establishing a conscious awareness among employees performing high-risk and routine activities, and also examined the ways to encourage and reward safe behaviour. Similarly, Cornelia Holtzhausen from Hatch spoke about the influence of informal leaders in groups, and the importance of understanding and conviction in following procedure when it comes to worker buy-in in processes.

A series of posters expanded on technological and behavioural safety improvements, including how miners’ diets can be improved to include meals that enable alertness.

Both day sessions were concluded with discussions that followed the “Open Space Technology” format, giving participants an opportunity to propose and discuss topics they deem important. The topics raised included the impact of Industry 4.0 on mining; the changing mining environment and job roles; the question of knowledge retention and training; concerns about the trust deficit between stakeholders in mining; the lack of evolution in the traditional relationship between mines, government and workers; and uncertainty created by the current lack of strategy and forward planning.