Safety article by Harold Hough

Heavy equipment remains one of the biggest safety issues around a mine. It doesn’t take a safety expert to know that combining tons of metal, thousands of horsepower, and an all too human operator will cause accidents – frequently fatal ones.

That’s why heavy equipment manufacturers focus on safety as much as lowering the cost per ton of material moved. Just one fatal accident can cost a mine more than the cost one large piece of equipment.

For some, the best way to eliminate human error is to eliminate the human. This explains why there has been such a push for automated equipment in the mining industry. An automated vehicle means an operator isn’t around the equipment, which lessens the chance for falls or other accidents. Safety is also enhanced by moving the human out of the loop. Operators get tired, haphazard, and bored; leading to many of the accidents on site. Computers and sensors do not get bored or lose concentration, which means that the chances of an accident are lessened. Of course, computers and sensors do fail, but software can shut the equipment down if there is any failure.

Another advantage to automated equipment is that an operation can maximize its output and increase efficiency. While human equipment operators might be tempted to cheat when it comes to running the equipment in the most efficient manner, a computer will carry out each maneuver precisely for as long as the mine desires. There will be no loss of efficiency as the shift comes to an end.

Automated equipment will also eliminate the discontinuities caused by bringing new workers in at the beginning of a shift. Unlike normal operations where work slows down as the shift nears an end and then slowly picks up as the new shift gets into the routine, there is no loss of efficiency with automation. Automated trucks can continue their routine of moving from the mine face to the crusher without interruption.

But, is eliminating the operator the only way to make heavy equipment safer?

Monitoring Fatigue

There is also a way to keep the operator and eliminate some of the safety concerns. Caterpillar Global Mining has entered into an alliance agreement with Seeing Machines Limited to deliver and support operator fatigue monitoring technology through Cat Dealers. Seeing Machines, headquartered in Canberra, Australia, has developed fatigue monitoring systems using patented eye and head tracking technology to detect operator fatigue and distraction and to alert the mine controller and the machine operator. This helps to eliminate the human error while keeping the human in the loop.

Seeing Machines keeps the operator in the loop, but monitors them for signs of fatigue. Many mines are 24/7 operations, but man is a daytime creature. Our bodies are designed to function in tune with the circadian cycle, the 24 hour pattern of day and night. Our bodies want to be awake during the day and they want to sleep at night. Even with large doses of caffeine, the body still exhibits the signs of drowsiness and operator error increases.

The Driver Safety Equipment is designed to look beyond the obvious and monitors those minor signs that mean that an operator is too fatigued to work safely. The system continuously measures operator eye and eyelid behavior to determine the onset of fatigue and micro sleeps and delivers real-time detection and alerts, yet the operator is not required to wear any special equipment. In fact, the process is totally transparent to the operator. Detecting operator fatigue does more than reduce operator error. It’s also beneficial to the operator himself. Not only does sleep deprivation cause cognitive problems, it has been found to be the root of many other physiological problems. A study 8 years ago showed that people who get less sleep are more likely to get Type 2 diabetes. Studies show that wounds take longer to heal when one gets less sleep. A lack of sleep can also suppress one’s immune system. Consequently, detecting a sleep problem not only lowers operator caused accidents, it allows the mine to isolate sleeping problems early and help their employees remain healthier.

Seeing Machines’ Driver Safety System (DSS), is already commercially available on mining trucks. It is currently being used at more than 20 mine sites and on 1,500 vehicles.

So, the question remains; human operators or computer operators? The jury is still out.