Heat stress management in mining, a sector highly exposed to hot climate conditions and the threats of climate change, is benefitting from the use of advanced technologies. Experts from the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists discuss the development.
Advanced technologies have penetrated areas of a mining operation beyond the much-publicised uptake of automation.
Inherent to the extreme mining conditions in Australia, large mining companies are leading the way in the use of technology to help workers manage the risks of heat stress.
Their goal in adopting today’s technology is to alter a mining environment so that it becomes a safer workplace, signalling a change in industry focus when it comes to heat stress.
“Where the traditional focus has been around when to stop working when it reaches a certain temperature, and how long one can safely continue working before taking a break, companies are now looking at how they can control the environment,” Ross Di Corleto, a member of Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH), tells Safe to Work.
“It’s no longer just a case of adjusting individuals to the environment, but changing the environment to suit the individuals so that they can work safely and be more productive.”
Health and safety professionals are increasing monitoring in the field to identify environmental and other potential sources of heat, such as tasks and processes that specifically induce heat strain in an individual.
Mining companies are looking for data to help them identify controls to eliminate or reduce the risk.
They are being helped by mine workers who are increasingly open to using technology that tracks personal bodily changes. One such example is a telemetry pill that is ingested, to measure the impact of environmental factors on workers in real time by measuring core body temperature.
According to AIOH member, Jodie Britton, there is a growing interest in telemetry pills among mining and other resource industries across Australia.
The approach relies on workers volunteering to be monitored, and more of them are offering to participate as they see the benefits of the technology.
“You can watch the worker and be viewing the information in real time on your phone, making it much simpler to identify specific tasks that are inducing heat strain,” she says.
“There’s nothing better than data that can pinpoint where the issues are in the workplace.
“I have first-hand experience in seeing data collected that leads to very significant changes in the workplace. And now I’ve got workers asking questions about it because they can see how the data has resulted in changes that have improved people’s wellbeing.”
In addition to the telemetry pill, the proliferation of technologies in the area of heat stress also includes smart garments that collect personnel’s biometric data.
Information such a person’s heart rate, temperature and breathing rate is relayed back to a control room or central location to indicate how they are coping with the heat stress.
In addition to monitoring workers’ reactions to heat, new technology is also helping keep these workers outside of hot zones in the first place.
Drones are being used to access hot areas such as roofs and mining pits to perform inspections remotely and to deliver goods to work sites to limit worker movement.
Britton says the use of drones is becoming more common in the mining industry to inspect the blast areas, significantly reducing heat stress.
“I’ve talked to mine workers in Western Australia who said that drone technology had been an absolute gamechanger from a heat stress and safety perspective. They no longer have to go down to the pit as often,” Britton says.
AIOH’s Di Corleto, who has four decades of experience in the mining industry, says miners are not only motivated by safety and health impacts to improve heat stress management, but productivity as well.
“I would love to say that it’s solely aimed around protecting the health of our workers, but that’s not the only target,” he says.
“People are starting to acknowledge that our environment is only going to get hotter, so we better start managing our work and people’s exposure to heat.
“And by looking after our workers, we’re improving productivity and quality of work in the workplace. It’s a win-win situation.”
According to Di Corleto, every increase in temperature of a few degrees leads to a significant drop in productivity.
Managing heat stress therefore leads to improved productivity, while reducing workplace incidents and injuries.
This is because as the temperature heats up, employees lose concentration, their fine motor skills depreciate and their cognitive function reduces.
Other early indications of heat stress include fatigue, as well as reduced hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills.
At the most extreme level, high temperatures can lead to heat stroke, which is a serious medical condition where a person’s control systems and organs begin to shut down.
They endure significant impairment such as kidney damage and the haemorrhaging of blood vessels, and it can ultimately result in a fatality.
Di Corleto adds that there is also a proven link between heat stress and safety incidents and injuries.
“Heat illness can occur at surprisingly low temperatures if the right combination of high humidity and low wind speeds are present,” he says.
Britton, who has worked in the heavy industry for 28 years, says most mining companies are today training and educating their workers about the risks of heat stress.
This is a welcome shift, as many years ago companies struggled to recognise the signs and effects of heat stress.
“Companies are now taking the issue of heat stress seriously,” Britton says.
“People in leadership roles benefit from education as do project leaders and engineers, due to their key role in the design and planning of mines.
“Likewise, workers would benefit from a greater understanding of the long-term, chronic effects of heat stress. After all, heat stress is a lot more than just about being well-hydrated.”
This article will also appear in the Jan-Feb issue of Safe to Work.