In an increasingly regulated global marketplace, organisations are struggling to balance workforce safety with operational performance and productivity. But will the growing availability of affordable real-time information and intelligent technology make a difference?
Glyn Jones, CEO of Trolex Group, looks ahead to identify the biggest changes likely in 2018 and the new technologies that are set to transform challenging environments, from mining to oil and gas production, this year.
A change in emphasis from safety to health
When it comes to worker well-being, the traditional focus has been on making workplaces safer. Whether this is avoiding injury due to falling equipment, preventing explosions from gas, reducing injuries or even fatalities sustained from trips or falls, keeping employees safe at work has been – and will continue to be – a major part of industrial workplace health and safety.
However, there is a growing shift from general safety to concentrating more on employee health, especially long-term health. This change in attitude – emphasised by bodies such as the UK’s Health and Safety Executive – reflects not only growing awareness of the productivity benefits associated with a healthy, motivated workforce but also the cumulative risks associated with hazardous environments, such as long term exposure to silica dust.
While improving worker health is set to be a priority issue for companies in 2018, achieving the shift from accident prevention towards employee well-being is going to be a challenge. So what are the key changes to consider? Certainly dust monitoring is a prime example of addressing the long term health of employees – and for good reason: respirable dust exposure is one of the greatest hazards experienced by miners and workers in a wide range of industries, even today, and can cause serious long-term health problems. Over half a million workers still die every year, worldwide, from the impacts of hazardous dust, and this is clearly unacceptable in a modern working context.
While dust monitoring and ventilation to keep environments as clear of particles as possible has become the norm for many operations, in 2018 we expect to see this practice become much more important. Real time dust monitoring, for both hazardous and explosive dust, provides organisations with the ability to proactively manage an environment to improve employee well-being. Tracking the quality of the environment, with real-time alerts based on defined thresholds, enables organisations to turn on ventilation and suppression technologies as required to create a consistently safe environment. As a result, rather than having to wear uncomfortable and constricting Personal Protective Equipment by default, employees can confidently operate without masks, for example, when the environment is safe – improving working conditions, morale and productivity.
When used in conjunction with real-time monitoring of employees’ vital signs – from heart rate to respiration, blood pressure and hydration – an organisation can gain invaluable insight into the impact of specific tasks and environments on employees over time, information that should inform ever more sophisticated employee well-being strategies.
Increasing the use of Real Time Strata monitoring in mines and tunnels
With one third of all deaths in mining still caused by rock falls there is a pressing need to improve understanding of risks associated with strata movement. This year the latest generation of intelligent strata monitoring sensors and devices is set to transform not only employee safety but also mining productivity across the globe.
Rock falls are the result of strata movement over a period of time; and with the exception of devastating weather events, rock falls do not happen instantaneously, rock movement provides an indication if a fall is imminent. With continuous insight into the movement of ground around the tunnels, mine operators can predict with incredible accuracy the potential risk of a fall in a very specific location.
This insight will not only save lives; it will enable mining operators to be far more savvy about how and where equipment and props are located, saving both time and money. Rather than taking a generic approach to the use of supports and infrastructure, real time and continuous insight into the strata can actually enable mines to use fewer supports and minimise the movement of heavy equipment. This can cut costs and improve efficiency.
In addition, day to day operations can be transformed: when monitoring reveals a rock fall is likely, the operator can immediately evacuate personnel, deploy them to another, safe tunnel, and install the required structural supports, often within hours. No rock falls, no worker accident or death and no long term disruption – the combination of day to day efficiency gains and minimal interruptions delivers return on investment within months.
Fibre Optic Connectors
With the use of fibre optic communications becoming ever more prevalent, new connectors are set to improve both safety and productivity in 2018. To date, the use of connectors has had to be rigorously planned – connections could take several hours to configure and in hazardous environments the power had to be turned off to avoid the risk of dangerous sparks.
Ex fibre optic connectors allow for much safer and efficient connections throughout an operation, and bring into play a much wider range of equipment that can be deployed and maintained easily within a mine or industrial operation. They minimise signal interference and in their new form, can now stand up to being used in arduous and hazardous environments.
This latest generation of fibre optic connectors opens the door to far more reactive and timely use – from maintenance to repair onwards. With hot disconnect, there is no need to unplug the power supply and the connections can be made in just minutes. The impact for on or offshore platforms, rigs or mines is significant. Whether connecting CCTV security systems or maintaining the well-head, with no power interruption affecting key safety systems, standard operations can continue as usual – there is no downtime, no worker evacuation and no productivity loss.
Whilst these types of connectors are more typically used in offshore platforms and rigs, the improving technology plays into the wider emphasis on health and safety in other industries including mining that we can expect in 2018.
These are, of course, just some of the movements we are likely to see impacting the mining and industrial arenas in the next 12 months, and undoubtedly there will be many more things happening throughout the year.
What is becoming clear, however, is that from employee well-being to environmental safety and operational efficiency, access to and action upon real time information is set to transform hazardous environments in the coming years. The adoption of intelligent technology heralds a new era of both safety and productivity.
Glyn Jones, CEO of Trolex Group
Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock