Making the most of maintenance

Upholding proper maintenance can be complex, but it remains essential for the productivity and safety of any mining operation.

As machinery and technology evolve along with the resources sector, one thing will remain constant: the need to undergo maintenance.

And that process needs to be safe.

Maintenance – in the context of the resources sector – refers to the protection and preservation of machinery, vehicles, equipment and associated parts.

Maintenance is vital to the productivity of any mining operation – it typically makes up 30–50 per cent of a mine site’s costs, and a large portion of profits will go back into preserving and maintaining the equipment used daily.

Maintenance is also considered the biggest variable cost in almost every operation. Without it, the asset cannot realise its necessary functions within the desired lifecycle and a mine’s production will face unnecessary breakdowns, downtime and costs.

But perhaps the most important aspect of maintenance is the simplest: safety. Without regular maintenance, machines break down, and that can cause accidents, injuries and, in extreme cases, death.

However, maintenance processes are almost always complex, since the operator must try to balance reducing costs with never compromising the asset’s reliability, availability and safety.

This balance can be difficult to maintain, but carrying out regular and ongoing maintenance is ultimately less costly, and much safer, compared to unexpected breakdowns or a workplace accident.

Benefits of maintenance
Proper maintenance allows operators to identify current and potential issues, such as premature wear and tear, leaks or damaged components, more quickly so they can be rectified before the issue escalates.

And it’s not just potential equipment issues that can stem from improper maintenance; workers can get caught in the line of fire, too.

Daily maintenance helps to ensure faulty equipment doesn’t lead to accidents and human injuries.

During 2021–22, 12.8 per cent of serious work-related injury and illnesses reported by Safe Work Australia came from machinery operators and drivers. This equates to 16,200 claims coming from the occupation.

And according to a Resources Safety and Health Queensland investigation, two thirds of these finger injuries in 2023 occurred during maintenance tasks carried out on coal mines, with the remaining third involving workers operating plant or undertaking manual handling tasks.

In many cases, the injuries were preventable and were occasioned due to inadequate job planning and provision of suitable tools. Other common factors included inadequate risk assessment and implementation of controls, inexperience coupled with inadequate supervision, poor communication between workers and supervisors, and failure to follow procedure.

Irregular maintenance can also lead to a decrease in machine productivity, in turn meaning workers will have to pick up the slack.

This can potentially lead to people stepping in to do a job with which they are not familiar, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries.

An increase in tasks, especially those on which an employee hasn’t been trained, can also lead to burnout, meaning workers will need more time off.

In short, it’s not hard to see the benefits of maintenance on the mine and its workforce as a whole.

Inspecting critical components of machinery on a regular basis means operators can minimise downtime while maximising efficiency and productivity.

But despite productivity being a priority of any mining operation, it is not possible without the people working on the machinery. And if the safety of those people is compromised, it can lead to significant injury and even loss of life.

In much the same way regular maintenance means machinery can last longer, checking for potential hazards like loose parts, malfunctioning safety features or compromised structural integrity means operators are empowered to take immediate action and eliminate safety risks before accidents occur.

Types of maintenance
There are a variety of maintenance processes that mining companies can carry out, and perhaps the first among those is regular inspections.

Regular inspections can detect signs of leaking, wear, damage, strange noises, vibrations, performance issues, and any other abnormalities.

However, the first step of any maintenance process should be troubleshooting, which refers to determining why something isn’t working as expected and ways to resolve the problem.

Operators can try to analyse the problem by reading equipment manuals, troubleshooting guides, or online resources. Following step-by-step procedures can identify the root cause of the problem and offer possible solutions without having to pay for external professional help.

As such, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) generally offer aftersales support.

Caterpillar (Cat) dealers, for example, offer planned equipment maintenance services and unexpected repairs that can be undertaken when it is safe to do so.

“That value shouldn’t change throughout the equipment lifecycle. Repairs and rebuilds can add life to your machines and reduce costs to your bottom line,” Caterpillar said on its website.

Keeping track of maintenance can be difficult. Despite having proper maintenance processes in place, human error can still rear its head.

Maintenance needs great attention to detail and people can overlook or miss key points. This is where a preventive maintenance program can help, ie a series of processes, guidelines and tools for conducting regular and routine maintenance on assets to keep them in the best condition possible.

An effective preventive maintenance program should consist of an up-to-date asset inventory, a schedule of upcoming tasks and procedures, and a record-keeping system where activity can be logged and tracked.

All staff members using the relevant assets should undergo preventive maintenance training to help ensure safety. This could include how to manage machinery parts and monitor equipment performance.

As technological change evolves, the way mining equipment and machinery runs and operates will change. But mining companies will always have to commit to upholding the health and safety of their assets and, more importantly, their people.

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