london mining sierra leone Photo: Bloomberg
Glasses that predict micro-sleeps, remotely operated underground vehicles, autonomous trucks, sensor networks, mobile apps and touch screen information kiosks are just some of the technologies being deployed to improve safety in Australia's resources industry.
Safe Work Australia statistics from November show that the mining industry is the sixth-most dangerous for employees, behind transport and storage, manufacturing, agriculture, construction and personal services.
In 2009-2010, it had 14.9 serious injury claims per 1000 employees, and six fatalities for a rate of 3.5 per 100,000 workers.
But in an inherently risky business, tragedies like Pike River in New Zealand, the Beaconsfield mine collapse in Australia, the Chilean mining accident in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and numerous deaths in China's mines continue to grab headlines.
The industry also has a significant flow-on employment effect (a ratio of 1:3) in other associated industries such as transport and as a result safety is a fundamentally shared obligation and goal.
However, progress is being made to improve safety with the help of modern technology.
At BHP Billiton's Cannington mine in north-west Queensland - the largest silver and lead mine in the world - the company has implemented remote operated underground loaders to reduce operator exposure to hazards.
The resources giant Iron Ore business is also establishing an Integrated Remote Operations Centre (IROC), which is now in its first phase of operation, with "additional operations coming online in the coming months".
The IROC is aimed at enabling staff to "co-ordinate the near-term scheduling, planning and controlling for its Pilbara-based operations from Perth" and that "autonomous plant and equipment remains an attractive option".
While BHP Billiton is trialling autonomous Caterpillar haul trucks at its operations in Navajo, New Mexico, the timing of introducing such technology in Australia has not yet been established.
Like BHP Billiton, Nino Fasolo, the CIO of resources industry service provider, Bis Industries said automation had a big role to play in removing employees from "the line of fire".
"Without talking to specifics that's where I think things are going," Fasolo said. "A lot of the projects we are talking about and a lot of the strategies I am putting in place for the organisation from an IT perspective is moving down that path where we are basically trying to take individuals out of the line of fire from a safety perspective and also from a purely operational perspective as well."
For its part Bis Industries is moving into the world of machine to machine (M2M) or telematic systems where data is captured by sensors on vehicles, for example, and automatically sent to control centres to speed reaction times and decision making.
The company also uses a product calle 'Optalert' - glasses which predict when drivers are about to have a micro-sleep. Fasolo added that the safety focus of the industry was critical for its success and that fatigue management and keeping front-line employees informed were key to this goal.
To improve its information provision abilities, Bis Industries has developed a mobile app that employees (and the general public) can download on organisation-liable or personal devices. The app provides company information, careers news, feedback functions and of course, safety messages.
Additionally, in collaboration with Australian IT start-up, Chocolate Coded, Fasolo is on the verge of installing six touchscreen kiosks at its sites to gain more employee engagement and to feed them information.
"What we have done to try and engage them is create some competitions on them and one of them is safety competition," Fasolo said. "Essentially it's a visual competition where you touch the screen and have to identify all the safety hazards on a particular image on the screen. If you obviously find them all, you get a score and are entered into a weekly draw for winning something."
The kiosks will sit in "crib rooms" that are common to majority of employees but also open to customers. Safety dashboards will also be there too.
These technologies are not being viewed as a silver bullet for resources industry safety, and indeed are often deployed with other benefits driving the decision making, but any small steps towards greater safety and "zero harm" goals through IT are universally welcomed.