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The Role of the IoT in Mining Safety

August 16, 2022 - Ellie Poverly

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Mining can be a dangerous industry. Hazardous working conditions, heavy manual labor and working near powerful machines can all endanger miners, but the internet of things (IoT) can help. Implementing the IoT in mining safety can prevent injury and even save lives.

The mining industry experienced more than 3,000 workplace injuries resulting in days away from work in 2020 alone. While that figure has consistently fallen over the past few years, it’s still alarmingly high. Considering how frequent these incidents are, mines should do all they can to protect their employees.

Here are a few ways IoT devices can help mining businesses do that.

Monitoring Worker Health

One of the most straightforward examples of the IoT in mining safety is worker health monitoring. Connected personal protective equipment (PPE) can gather data like heart rates, body temperatures and perspiration. When these signals suggest an employee may be in danger of getting hurt, these devices can alert them.

Bodily reaction injuries like repetitive stress and overexertion account for 35% of all injuries in the mining industry, more than any other category. Consequently, wearable sensors that can detect early warning signs and prevent these incidents are some of the most valuable safety equipment.

Connected mining PPE can come in many forms, from helmets to vests to wristbands. Regardless of the specifics, these devices can tell employees when they need to rest or improve their form, preventing injury.

Detecting Hazardous Fumes

Dangerous fumes are another common hazard mining workers face. Digging underground can release trapped gases like methane that can affect workers’ lung health if they breathe it in and presents explosive hazards. Similarly, running gas-powered machinery in tight spaces runs the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

IoT sensors can help mitigate these hazards by monitoring the air quality. These devices can either be stationary or take the form of wearables. In either case, they function much like connected PPE, alerting workers when they detect hazardous levels of certain gases to inform quick actions.

When miners receive these alerts, they can evacuate the area or adjust ventilation systems. These mitigation strategies are fairly straightforward, but they rely on timely warnings since these gases often have no smell.

Tracking Environmental Hazards

A similar application of the IoT in mining safety is tracking environmental hazards like seismic activity. Structural failure is the most common cause of mining fatalities, but it can be hard to tell when a wall or ceiling is about to collapse. IoT seismic sensors offer a more reliable way to detect these hazards.

IoT sensors can monitor vibrations in the ground or along mine walls to determine their structural integrity. If the data suggests the mine could collapse, these devices can then tell workers to evacuate, saving lives.

Similarly, IoT systems can monitor groundwater levels within and near the mine. If water levels get too high, they can tell miners to pump it out, preventing flooding and contamination.

Optimizing Ventilation

Ventilation is a crucial part of mining safety. Fan systems remove fumes from mine shafts and improve airflow to prevent overheating and breathing trouble. The IoT can take these solutions further by adjusting them in real-time as airflow factors change.

These IoT ventilation systems work similarly to smart HVAC solutions in buildings. IoT sensors monitor air quality, temperature and movement to determine current ventilation needs. They then adjust operations to use minimal energy or account for new hazards, ensuring miners have clean, comfortable air.

While safety is the most important advantage of these systems, they also improve cost efficiency. Ventilation can account for 40% of the total energy consumption in a mine, so controlling it with efficient smart technologies can lead to significant savings.

Preventing Machine Breakdowns

Some benefits of the IoT in mining safety come as a positive side effect of other use cases. Predictive maintenance is a prime example. While this practice is primarily a way to save money, it can improve workplace safety, too.

Predictive maintenance uses IoT sensors to analyze machine health based on factors like heat, electrical signals and vibrations. These devices then notify employees of potential performance issues, guiding them to fix the problem before it leads to costly breakdowns. As a secondary benefit, these alerts keep operators and nearby workers safe by ensuring everything works as it should.

Equipment malfunctions could cause operators to lose control, potentially endangering them or nearby coworkers. Alternatively, if a machine breaks, it could cause frustration, leading workers to operate it incorrectly, which could create safety issues. Preventing breakdowns with predictive maintenance helps avoid these situations. 

Informing Long-Term Improvements

As businesses use IoT in mining safety more heavily, the data from all these applications will reveal long-term trends. IoT devices throughout the mine will provide hard data on usage and incident patterns. Mining companies can then review these patterns to see potential areas to improve.

Repeated safety alerts could indicate that a company’s mining methods themselves create unnecessary hazards. Alternatively, frequent issues in a specific area could suggest that the mine should be extra cautious there or focus their efforts elsewhere. As companies gather and respond to this information, the mining industry will become a safer place.

Challenges With Using the IoT in Mining Safety

While the IoT’s potential in mining safety is vast, some challenges remain. Businesses must consider these issues carefully to make the most of their IoT investments.

Most notably, adding IoT infrastructure increases the risk of cyberattacks. New vulnerabilities targeting operational technology rose 46% in 2021 as more industrial workplaces implemented IoT systems. Mines must ensure they embrace cybersecurity as they adopt the IoT. Otherwise, they’ll expand their attack surface, making them more vulnerable.

Connectivity can also be an issue, as cellular signals and Wi-Fi don’t work well in underground mines. This can limit the devices mining businesses can use, as they need systems that work with protocols like low power wide area networks (LPWAN).

Like any new technology, IoT devices can also be expensive. Starting small and applying the IoT to the areas of most needed improvement first can help offset these costs to enable quicker returns on investment.

IoT in Mining Safety Can Save Lives

Using the IoT in mining safety is a relatively new practice but a promising one. These interconnected systems can give mining companies more insight and control over their operations, stopping threats before they endanger workers. The mining industry can then become a safer place.

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.

Author

Ellie Poverly

Ellie Poverly is a science writer specializing in astronomy and environmental science and is the Associate Editor of Revolutionized. Ellie's love of science stems from reading Richard Dawkins books and her favorite science magazine as a child, where she fell in love with the experiments included in each edition

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