Wearable technology emerges as a safety device

Mining operators are increasingly drawing on critical information from wearable devices to improve safety at their sites. OSIsoft paints the scenario.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged how things are normally done even in the largest of companies.

BHP’s teams based in Western Australia are using wearable technology to navigate and overcome travel restrictions that have been enforced because of the pandemic.

When undertaking complex tasks, the teams can assist auto-electricians and mechanical fitters who are at mine sites 1300 kilometres away.

Such is the advancement of wearable technology that Microsoft’s HoloLens, for example, incorporates mixed reality so technicians receive step-by-step guidance from afar.

According to BHP Minerals Australia vice president of technology, Pat Bourke, remote work using technology has always been an option for the company.

“… however, COVID-19 has pushed us to really harness innovative technology and we will only continue to improve our productivity as we make it widely available and perfect its use,” he says.

The pandemic has not only changed the way day-to-day activities at mining operations are undertaken. Canada-based OSIsoft industry principal, mining, metals and materials Martin Provencher explains how he accepted his temperature before taken before going into a dental clinic.

“They were monitoring my personal information, and I accepted that. Before COVID-19, who would’ve said yes? If I don’t follow the procedures, I wouldn’t have been able to go to the dentist,” Provencher tells Safe to Work.

“Things are changing now. Working schedules in the mining sector have changed and expanded. Some mining companies that do fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) have extended the duration of workers’ rosters so people stay longer on site and are isolated to minimise risks.

“These workers also accepted that they were coming for work for a longer period and that their employer was monitoring their health.

“These are drastic changes that we see in the world, where we start talking about using your personal, real-time data just to improve everybody’s health.”

Readily available wearable devices can be systems that help mining companies improve safety today. But unfortunately, research by GlobalData indicates that they are not one of the top 10 trending technologies that global metals and mining companies are considering.

Wearable technology can be as simple as a smart watch, or an iPhone and Android mobile phone, all of which have mainstream popularity.

“If you start combining information from an employee – an asset – and external authorities, you will be able to monitor employees’ location and the different health events happening to them,” Provencher says.

“This will allow you to notify them when they’re facing a potential and previously unknown risk to themselves and their health, or when they’re posing risks to their colleagues.”

OSIsoft’s real-time data application, PI System, can collect information from all mining assets.

For example, Syncrude Canada, one of the largest operators in Canada’s growing oil sands industry, presented in 2016 that it was collecting operational data from its haul trucks and shovels to monitor their asset health in real-time.

The same data was also used for safety purposes. In addition to saving $C20 million ($21.2 million) in operating cost in one year for avoiding potential future failures, monitoring dumping procedures also improved the company’s compliance and reduced non-procedural operator dumping incidents by 85 per cent.

As another example, Glencore-acquired multinational mining company Xstrata presented in 2010 that it was already providing employees with information on gas levels and air quality of the underground mines in real-time using the PI System.

Provencher says in most places around the world, mine operators are required to monitor air qualities in certain parts of the mine, but not everyone puts this information at their employees’ disposal.

The employees can, therefore, check gas levels before entering a specific location, while operators analyse how that interacts with the number of people in a place, location and time.

With wearable devices, mining operators can also start to access real-time operational data collected by PI System, including the amount of oxygen in a room – a critical piece of information that can identify a gas leak.

They can then immediately alert operators on their mobile device or smart watch.

In the same way, the PI System is used to draw valuable safety information, such as an employee’s breathing patterns, temperature, pulse or oxygen saturation.

When paired with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines about temperature and oxygen saturation levels, it can indicate people who are suffering from COVID-19.

“Companies want to improve safety, but we should all start thinking outside the box about what else we can do to improve safety results,” Provencher says.

“Most mining companies have looked at proximity detection systems, fatigue detection systems and employee behavioural programs, but according to our survey last year, 98 per cent of global mining executives still consider safety as one of their top challenges.

“Wearable devices are part of the solution. Combining its use with real-time operational data provides critical information, so we know if we need to shut down an area due to a gas leak or high temperature, and we can identify a wrongful movement performed by an employee that can lead to a risk to his own safety or many others.”

Provencher believes there are opportunities presented by wearable devices that will not breach confidentiality. Further, there are readily available technologies that ensure data security is no longer an issue.

According to Provencher, several mining companies have started their journey towards collecting real-time operation data using wearable devices, including in Australia. There are others that are still investigating.

“There is a research study called DETECT (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment) that is led by California’s Scripps Research Translational Institute that combines patients’ symptom reports with their heart rate, activity and sleep data collected through Fitbits, Apple watches, Garmins and other wearable devices as part of a COVID-19 study. This is just the beginning,” he says.

“COVID-19 has brought to everybody’s attention that technology can not only help in facilitating meetings, but also in improving safety.”

This article also appears in the Sep-Oct issue of Safe to Work.