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Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

Safety in the Australian mining industry has seen some very remarkable improvements over the last decade or so, and the companies, authorities and workforce should be proud of their achievements. The below tables highlight the 42% reduction in fatalities over the last two decades in the WA mining industry. That is a great step forward and equates to a lot of lives saved.

Table 1

Mining fatalities 2001 to 2010
Year Gold Iron Ore Nickel Base metal Bauxite Diamond Total
2001 1 3 4
2002 1 1 2
2003 2 1 1 1 5
2004 2 3 5
2005 2 1 1 4
2006 1 2 3
2007 2 1 1 4
2008 1 3 4
2009 2 3 1 6
2010 1 1 1 3
2001–2010 14 14 9 1 1 1 40

 

Table 2

Mining fatalities 2011 to 2020
Year Gold Iron Ore Nickel Base metal Coal Other Total
2011 3 3
2012 0
2013 1 2 3
2014 1 1
2015 3 2 5
2016 1 1
2017 1 1 2
2018 1 1 1 3
2019 1 1 2
2020 1 2 3
2011–2020 6 10 1 2 1 3 23

Source: Western Australian Mining fatalities database.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

It has been due to various, initiatives and improvements: 

  • Automation
  • Culture
  • Technology
  • Roster length
  • Management style
  • Equipment safety
And the list can go on…

But let’s take a closer look at the role autonomous haul trucks have played in this commendable industry improvement.

Autonomous haul trucks have a huge array of added sensors these sensors all feedback and create what is called sensor fusion. This is the process of combining multiple components to generate an output or action that is much more accurate and reliable. These sensors manage speeds in relation to inclination, stopping distances relevant to other equipment and on and on. This is the brains of the autonomous truck and what makes it fundamentally safer than manual operating trucks. These sensors have much faster reaction time and are hard coded to make particular decisions based on particular inputs. If at anytime one of these sensors malfunctions or loses communications, it will stop the autonomous truck immediately. 

Anyone who has worked in an AHS mining operation understands with firsthand experience how inherently safe these systems are. With multiple robust layers of good engineering protection with AHS, it makes operating and interactions in a mining pit much more predictable and repeatable.

On top of these truck engineering controls, there are many engineering controls implemented in other vehicles operating in autonomous zones.

Some engineering controls include:

  • Fully sealed mining boundaries to limit the number of access points to the live AHS mining area.
  • Pit entrance boom gates for pit access. These boom gates can’t be opened unless there is power to the field computer in the vehicle.
  • Every vehicle operating in the AOZ has a virtual safety boundary that cannot be penetrated by an AHT (autonomous haul truck). This virtual protection is active whenever there is the power to the field computer.
  • Emergency stop buttons to halt the AHTs immediately if required.
  • Field computers that clearly show the AHT route of travel all the time.
  • Warnings and prompts of vehicle locations, speeds, trajectories etc.

 

These are just a few examples of failsafe engineering controls that are in place at all times. Anyone that has the experience of operating in an autonomous pit and has then had to revert back to manual operations fully understands the sense of confusion and powerlessness you have in a manual operation, particularly on night shift. It is literally like trying to navigate around a new and unfamiliar city without any kind of map.

Many people’s first expectation of AHS is that it could be a system that has a mind of its own, but it quickly becomes apparent that the system is designed with safety at the forefront of everything it does, and that operators have much more control of these huge machines than they have ever had in the past.

AHTs are predominantly more conservative in the way they operator compared to a manually operated truck. AHTs rely on consistence and hours of continually operations to make up for the reduced ground speeds and manoeuvrability.  

So this is all good news for the mining industry and safety performance, by automating more of these mining fleets it will only contribute to the positive safety outcomes. It won’t be much longer and there will be more of vehicles operating in the autonomous zones that are autonomous or at least semi-autonomous. Vehicles like light trucks, light vehicles, water carts etc. once this begins to happen soon the probability of fatal vehicle-on-vehicle accidents will decrease even further.

 

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Troy Adams

Troy Adams is the Managing Director of Global Road Technology (GRT) Specialising in Engineered Solutions for Dust Suppression, Erosion Control, Soil Stabilisation and Water Management. A pioneering, socially conscious Australian entrepreneur, Troy Adams is passionate about health and safety and providing innovative solutions that are cost-effective to the mining industry, governments and infrastructure sectors.

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