A safer workforce through sustainability

With Australia pledging its commitment to zero emissions by 2050, the nation’s mining sector has moved quickly to find sustainable solutions. An additional bonus of this move could include the health and safety of the workforce.

Last year, the Australian Government pledged to deliver net zero emissions by 2050 while preserving Australian jobs and generating new opportunities for industries.

A large part of this saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reductions Angus Taylor release Australia’s Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan.

The technology-driven plan sets out a credible pathway to net zero by 2050, establishing Australia as a leader in low emissions technologies.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Peter Newman from the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute said the whole private sector is now moving quickly towards net zero emissions.

“So many of the younger engineers have been ready and waiting for this opportunity, so when they get asked how they are going to achieve these goals they already have the plans ready and are able to show that it will actually be cost effective,” he said.

Newman said that while there is great potential in hydrogen fuel cell technology, it will not be cost effective and the industry will be better off focussing on the benefits of battery technology.

“All of the land transport is going to be battery electric, so every train, truck and piece of mining equipment will be able to switch to battery electric or running directly off the main power supply,” he said.

“Batteries are getting lighter and they now have a more extensive range. The battery chemistries are constantly being upgraded which is giving them more power.

“There are also so many different types of batteries for different purposes, including what is happening with lithium batteries, and these appear to be moving on a curve that is getting more and more efficient.”

However, it is not just batteries that are included in sustainable energy.

IGO recently announced it has continued its partnership with Zenith Energy to prove it is possible to use 100 per cent renewables to meet the demands of an operational mine site.

Zenith Energy is the builder, owner and operator of the power station at IGO’s Nova nickel-copper-cobalt operation in the Goldfields region of Western Australia and will expand its renewable generation to successfully operate ‘engine off’ for up to nine consecutive hours a day.

The site is currently powered by a hybrid solar and diesel engine system and will expand its renewable energy capabilities through the addition of an extra 10MW of solar panels, and a 10MWh battery energy storage system.

The storage system is a key component of achieving ‘engine off’, storing sufficient power to ensure supply and reliability of the system is not compromised.

Zenith Energy is the builder, owner and operator of the power station at IGO’s Nova nickel-copper-cobalt operation.

Zenith executive manager – growth Dominic Da Cruz said the project would boost renewable penetration on site, to allow for 100 per cent renewable power generation during daylight hours, depending on weather conditions.

Based upon a power purchase agreement struck up with IGO in October 2018, Zenith built its facility to complement the previous Nova diesel power station, also designed by Zenith.

Da Cruz said while Nova will continue to rely on diesel-generated power overnight and during inclement weather conditions, he is confident the industry is approaching a tipping point where 100 per cent renewable power generation will be possible 24 hours a day.

“Zenith is already looking at what subsequent steps are needed to achieve this, including how we make wind assets relocatable to achieve higher levels of renewable penetration, and the integration of long duration storage,” he said.

“It’s an exciting time not just for Zenith as a company, but for the entire industry. We’re making real progress in the decarbonisation space and what that might look like for the sector moving forward.”

However, as well as the positive environmental and sustainability objectives of the Nova project, Da Cruz said there were also safety benefits for personnel working at the site.

“The primary example, particularly in underground operations, is the ability to reduce the diesel particulates from a site,” he said.

“I think there are many mining companies that are starting rate the potential health problems associated with exposure to these particulates, especially over long periods.

“Companies like IGO and other major miners are currently trialling battery electric vehicles on their sites in an attempt to reduce these risks, however I think the concept of a fully electric mine site is still a few years away.”

Epiroc Australia and Asia-Pacific electrified solutions product and sales support lead Brett Kenley said his company has made massive strides when it comes to its battery electric offering.

Epiroc has been working with battery powered equipment for many years.

The company has been working with battery powered equipment for many years and

Kenley said customer feedback from the people operating Epiroc’s machines has been that they don’t want to go back to operating the diesel equipment, in some cases just on the vibration and noise alone.

“If we can make a comfortable work environment for the people working on the ground, then that is a good result for everyone,” he said.

“We all realise the importance of safety and part of that safety is wearing ear protection.

“The difference in the noise alone between the diesel and battery equipment is incredible and the uptake of batteries will have a huge benefit on health and safety in terms of hearing.”

Kenley said the company recognises the safety benefits of battery electric equipment.

“I think it is important that we want to make the mines safer by having electrified equipment and then moving into the automation space as well,” he said.

“To have an automated battery piece of equipment means we are getting feet off the ground in regard to danger areas and we are lowering emissions.

“We are also reducing vibrations in the machines which has real benefits for operators who are working in the equipment for a long period of time.”

The reduced noise of battery and other sustainable energy technology has the potential for immediate results.

Curtin University-led research has found that as many as half a million Australians are suffering from constant tinnitus, with workers in the resources industry among the people at the greatest risk.

The new research, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, examined the prevalence of tinnitus among 5000 adults currently employed across the country.

Lead author and audiologist Kate Lewkowski, from the Curtin School of Population Health, said the survey results indicated one-quarter of the Australian workforce suffered from tinnitus, including half a million who live with it constantly.

“We estimate that more than 500,000 Australian workers experience constant tinnitus, indicating the prevalence of tinnitus in the Australian workforce is high,” Lewkowski said.

Co-author Professor Lin Fritschi, also from the Curtin School of Population Health, said the high incidence of tinnitus in certain occupations indicated it may be, in part, preventable.

“The prevalence of tinnitus was high in occupations most exposed to hazardous noise levels, such as farming, construction work, automotive industries, and other trades,” Fritschi said.

“However, as drivers are not usually exposed to the same levels of loud noise as some other workers, it is interesting that this workforce has a high prevalence of tinnitus.

“One theory is that other workplace exposures, such as carbon monoxide in vehicle exhaust, may be contributing to the risk.

“While there is a documented link between hazardous noise exposure and tinnitus, the role workplace chemicals play in the development of tinnitus requires further detailed examination.”

While 2050 may seem like a long way away, the potential benefits of net-zero emissions, not just for the environment, but also for the Australian resources industry workforce, could be massive for the sector.

This article also appears in the March/April edition of Safe To Work.

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