South Africa’s mining safety statistics are commendable, but the same cannot be said of some of the mining jurisdictions in Africa, Mining Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa (MEMSA) chairperson Freddy Mugeri tells Mining Weekly.
“I have been around the world and have not heard [people] criticise South Africa as they do other nations. But we can do better.”
He says safety is top of mind when local mines procure mining technology, as production is stopped every time there is a major safety incident at a mine, which cannot be good for business. “When a mine stands still, it is very expensive, owing to this lost production.”
The group CEO of underground mining support technology manufacturer Fabchem Mining, Mugeri notes that there have been instances when the company’s clients have specified safety features over and above those required by industry standards. South African mines are highly safety conscious, he states, adding that this is not the experience of manufacturers when they export into some of the mining jurisdictions in Africa.
“Our manufacturers find that some of their [products’] safety features make them uncompetitive in terms of pricing, because the addition of these features costs money. That’s a frightening story. So, our manufacturers are faced with the moral dilemma of having to strip out these features to get an export order.”
Therefore, he says, the MEMSA should look at how it can influence mining safety across Africa, noting that, to do so, it would require its trading partners to adopt similar safety standards so that more mines on the continent adopt the safety features provided by its members.
Reducing the cost of safety features is a challenge that local mining equipment manufacturers constantly seek to tackle, says Mugeri. Lowering the capital investment for mines would not only benefit the rest of the continent, and perhaps boost safety in Africa’s mining industry, but also assist local mining operations in improving their margins. “If I can offer the same safety feature at a lower price, I win the market,” states Mugeri.
South Africa’s mining equipment manufacturers are on a par with their international counterparts in terms of safety and, in some areas, even better than them. Mugeri says this is due to South Africa being home to some of the deepest mines in the world and the technology for these mines having been developed locally.
The country’s manufacturers, he adds, are also well connected globally, continuously monitoring international trends. While the MEMSA encourages local intellectual property (IP) development, it also welcomes IP originating from global sources, as long as manufacturing takes place locally. “We have a very global outlook; we are not isolated and will never be left behind.”
The development of safety technology for mining equipment involves a lot of creativity, notes Mugeri, highlighting that, even though South African manufacturers may use international IP, this does not stop them from improving on it.
Internationally, large original- equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are all experimenting with autonomous-driving vehicles, which improve safety by eliminating the human factor. When there are accidents like those caused by fall-of-ground (FoG) incidents, there is no moral dilemma about having to recover the equipment, as there would be in the case of deceased mineworkers. But the use of such equipment, although safer, necessitates the cutting of jobs, which South Africa desperately needs.
Locally, FoG incidents and mining- equipment-related accidents are the top causes of injuries and fatalities in the mining sector; consequently, safety technologies geared towards preventing such accidents are gaining traction.
FoGs, which account for 40% of mining fatalities, have prompted a lot of research focused on the development of devices that can predict future rock bursts, resulting in better underground mine roof support.
Earlier this year, scientific research and development organisation the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) showcased its ground penetrating radar for rock mass stability investigations. The technology is aimed at providing valuable information on immediate hanging-wall integrity to reduce FoG incidents. The use of long anchor support systems for underground roofing is also a focus in addressing this safety risk.
Reducing FoG incidents improves not only safety but also the economics of a mine, as it reduces clean-up time after blasting. Therefore, supporting the roof is critical to expediting the move to the next stage of mining and ensuring optimum productivity levels are attained. “There is a fine line between safety and economics,” states Mugeri.
There is also growing demand for mining equipment featuring proximity detection (PD) technology to enable the detection of other vehicles and pedestrians. Mugeri notes that there are 40 suppliers of PD systems in South Africa, with Metrics and Blue Strata being the market leaders.
However, the responsibility of the individual to ensure his or her safety and that of others can never be eliminated. “We all know people have various things affecting them and we can, therefore, never know a person’s true state of mind. We must use machines as much as possible to compensate for that weakness. It is unreasonable to assume that all people going underground are alert,” Mugeri points out.
Consequently, computer programs and artificial intelligence are being used to detect fatigue, with wearable technology being developed that will benefit mine- workers; the wearables are similar to those supplied to long-haul drivers in the transport sector.
Technologies that ensure effective, continuous communication underground are also in demand. “Live communication is extremely important and, when it is combined with wearable fatigue-monitoring devices that can provide insight into a person’s stress level, it allows for faster decision-making by mine managers to prevent possible accidents,” explains Mugeri. Such devices may enable mine management to immediately stop people who are committing unsafe acts underground – such as getting too close to mining equipment.
Continuous communication with mineworkers underground is still, however, affected by rock interfering with the transmission of signals to and from control rooms on the surface. A company that recently joined the MEMSA has developed a technology based on international IP in response to this challenge. Its devices are installed on every mining vehicle and, equipped with transmitters and receivers, pass on information from one vehicle to the next when they cross paths until the information reaches the control room or other intended targets.
“We understand the challenges faced by the mining industry in terms of meeting safety targets. Last year, there were 88 fatalities locally and we know we need to get to zero,” sates Mugeri. The causes of these incidents boil down to machine-related accidents, human error, fatigue and FoG incidents. Therefore, the development of technology in South Africa is focused on addressing these factors, while ensuring that mines can extract ore in the most cost-effective manner possible.
When developing mining equipment, he stresses, safety features are always top of mind for manufacturers in South Africa. “We have a very robust legal framework in the Mine Health and Safety Act, which prescribes the responsibilities and accountabilities of manufacturers.”
While ensuring equipment is inherently safe, manufacturers also need to guarantee that people are properly trained to use equipment safely. To provide a safe training environment, South African mining capital equipment manufacturer AARD Mining Equipment, for instance, is in the advanced stages of developing simulators to ensure that mineworkers are adequately trained in the use of their equipment’s safety features and can test the limits of a machine’s capabilities in a safe environment.
Work with Mandela Mining Precinct
Based in Gauteng, at the Mandela Mining Precinct, a physical hub for mining-related organisations, research and interactions, the MEMSA is working with the mining precinct to advance safety through numerous initiatives and bring technology to mines.
In April, Mining Weekly reported that the Department of Science and Technology, the CSIR and Minerals Council of South Africa, in collaboration with the MEMSA, had developed vital mining research and development programmes through which researchers could significantly improve mine safety and health. Currently, there are just under 60 research personnel active at the Mandela Mining Precinct.
Owing to South Africa’s exceptionally deep mines, Mugeri says he would love to see large OEMs conducting their research locally to serve local and other geographies where mining depths are increasing. He notes that, while jobs might be lost on mines, more sustainable jobs would be created through this research and in the manufacturing of these technologies locally for export. “In Ghana, the gold deposits being mined are shallow at present, but there is gold deeper down. Therefore, mining companies will get to a point where they need these technologies to exploit the deeper deposits.”
The MEMSA and the Mandela Mining Precinct are also making progress in setting up a test mine in South Africa where large and small OEMs can test products in real mining conditions before going into production. The exact location has yet to be finalised, but two sites have been proposed. “Large OEMs overseas have access to these facilities, but locally we don’t, with mines not always open to having these technologies tested at their active operations,” Mugeri notes.
Meanwhile, on October 25, the Mandela Mining Precinct announced the three winners of Phase 1 of its Isidingo Drill Challenge. The competition, comprising three phases, is designed to improve the efficiency, health and safety with which drilling is undertaken in the overall mining cycle. Faster, quieter and more precise drilling may also reduce FoG incidents, thus contributing to a safer mining environment and less dilution, as well as lowering unit costs, notes the Isidingo Drill Challenge website.
The finalists from Phase 1 – Novatek Drills, Fermel and HPE – will now take their concept designs to the proof-of- concept stage. They had 60 days from October 25 to do so. Should they make it through to Phase 3, they will have another 60 days to develop and test a prototype drill.
Although huge advances have been made in terms of health and safety by South African mines, Mugeri says it is unacceptable that fatalities are still occurring. “There are many other industries where people work around heavy machinery, but we do not have this number of fatalities. We need the next generation of technologies to safeguard people,” he stresses, noting that autonomous vehicles, which remove people from the most hazardous areas in mines, are just one solution.
The days of wearing low-technology overalls with reflectors arev over. Miners must be armed with high-technology wearables to ensure their safety and wellbeing, states Mugeri.