Digging into mine safety

Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 30 May 2024
Sabine Dall’Omo, Siemens Sub-Saharan Africa
Sabine Dall’Omo, Siemens Sub-Saharan Africa

On January 21, 1960, South Africa experienced the worst mine disaster in the industry’s history when around 900 pillars collapsed at the Coalbrook coalmine in the Northern Free State and 437 miners were killed. At the time, there was no machine capable of drilling holes large enough to rescue the miners. Rescue teams, did, however, drill smaller holes in areas where survivors were expected to be, but no signs of life were detected.

Mining has come a very long way since Coalbrook and yet the goal of achieving “zero harm” on the country’s mines remains elusive. At the end of 2023, 13 mineworkers lost their lives at Impala Platinum, the miner’s worst accident in 50 years. And in the first week of 2024, another two fatalities were reported, one at Harmony Gold’s Mponeng mine near Carletonville, and another at Gold Fields’ South Deep mine in southwest Johannesburg.

While the industry is acutely aware of the importance of improving worker safety, and much has already been done to address health and safety in the country’s mines, mining is inherently dangerous. At 3.9km deep, Harmony Gold’s Mponeng mine is the deepest in the world. At these depths, there is an increased likelihood of catastrophic events like explosions, rock falls and gas outbursts. The temperature of the rock can reach 66°C, and slurry ice is pumped underground to cool the tunnel to below 30°C. Massive investments are needed to develop mining facilities so that operators have the visibility needed to monitor everything going on below the earth’s surface.

Often, near misses or unsafe working conditions cannot be detected by just one stream of data such as a sensor. However, by collating multiple streams of data – like sensors, cameras, drones, etc. – we can create a much more accurate model of the people, the machinery and the environment.

Etienne Steyn, Accenture Africa

Mining firms are increasingly looking to automation, as well as sensors and wearable technologies. These technologies support the safety, health and wellbeing of mineworkers and also play an important role in the long-term sustainability of mining facilities. Through the strategic use of technology, the mining industry’s biggest players can enhance the safety of workers, while improving their operational efficiency and boosting their bottom line.

One area where emerging technologies have been deployed to improve mine safety is in developing new approaches to training. In Australia, Rio Tinto is using VR to train its workforce, says Etienne Steyn, resources lead at Accenture Africa. When entering these virtual mines, users see a scaled-down version of an actual facility, with the aim of enhancing safety and emergency response procedures. Siemens deploys similar solutions, says Sabine Dall’Omo, CEO at Siemens Sub-Saharan Africa. The brand’s digital twin technology is being used to build virtual replicas of physical mining systems and assets. These technologies allow for real-time monitoring and analysis of data to optimise mining operations. In the realm of training, digital twins provides mineworkers with opportunities to gain practical experience, hone their skills and learn how to handle different scenarios without being put into dangerous situations.

This improves their ability to make the right decisions under pressure. And when training is done in this way, says Dall’Omo, it’s easier for mining firms to analyse individual performance, identify areas for improvement and then use these insights to personalise training modules so that they can address the strengths and weaknesses of each trainee.

Digital success needs data

In order for any of these solutions to bear fruit, data is essential. But data doesn’t automatically improve insights and decision- making, especially if all of this information is sitting in different places. Mining companies operate from a head office – often in another country – with mines in remote areas and these different environments don’t always talk to each other. Disparate IT systems and data sources can make it difficult to paint a clear picture of what is happening on, and under, the ground. According to Steyn, data sharing and integration is a fundamental pillar of moving the sector towards a safer future.


According to Gregg Sanders, GM for digital solutions at NEC XON, IoT solutions are at the forefront of mine safety, particularly because they enable a shift from reactive to proactive safety management. Some of the important areas where IoT can make a big difference include:

  • Environmental Monitoring

IoT sensors continuously monitor air quality, detect hazardous gases and assess structural stability. Being able to do so in real-time makes it possible to provide early warnings to prevent accidents.

  • Equipment monitoring

IoT-enabled predictive maintenance can anticipate equipment failures before they occur, reducing the risk of an accident because equipment isn’t operating optimally.

  • Worker safety

When fitted on mineworkers, wearable IoT devices can track a worker’s location, monitor their health and even identify signs of fatigue.

  • Emergency response

Should an accident occur, IoT systems will locate all affected workers, assess the situation and then guide emergency response efforts. In life or death situations, this has potential to save lives.

“Often, near-misses or unsafe working conditions cannot be detected by just one stream of data. However, by collating multiple data streams – from sensors, cameras and drones, for example – we can create a much more accurate model of the people, the machinery and the environment.”

IoT solutions facilitate the integration of data from a number of sources, providing a comprehensive overview of mine operations and enabling quicker responses to safety concerns, says Nishen Hariparsad, GM for technology, innovation and global product management marketing at BME. “By reducing human input and increasing automation, IoT solutions can lead to safer, more efficient mining operations.” And when combining this data with real-time analytics, it’s possible to predict equipment failures, conduct proactive maintenance and prevent accidents before they happen, he says.

Looking at data-sharing more broadly, it’s unsurprising that mining companies are hesitant to share data among their peers for fear of giving away their competitive advantage. But data-sharing among mining companies can lead to significant improvements in mine health and safety.

According to Gregg Sanders, GM: Digital Solutions, NEC XON, it allows miners to pool the knowledge and insights they have gained from safety incidents, audits and risk assessments. If, for example, several mines have recently experienced equipment failures under similar conditions, shared data can help identify the cause and may prevent future incidents. Additionally, data-sharing supports benchmarking efforts, allowing mines to measure their safety performance against industry standards and identify areas that might need improvement. To overcome datasharing reluctance, Sanders suggests that the industry develop a neutral and secure data exchange platform that would ensure anonymity and confidentiality.

Connectivity gaps

While all of these innovations open up new opportunities to mitigate risks, getting the most out of emerging technologies demands that mines have high-performing and reliable wireless connectivity, both above and below ground. Mines must deploy their own last mile connectivity that usually extends WiFi to devices that operate underground. They then need to bring this up via fibre to the surface and connect to terrestrial services. 


A refuge chamber, also known as a refuge station or refuge bay, is a sealed environment built to sustain life underground. Located underground in an area close to the main work site, these facilities provide a safe haven where workers can wait until they are rescued or until hazardous conditions subside. These chambers are equipped with fresh water, food, breathable air, a toilet and a means for the trapped workers to connect with help on the surface. Designed to withstand the kind of extreme temperature and pressure changes that might occur during an emergency, these chambers dramatically increase the chances of survival of personnel in the event of a disaster underground. 

At remote mining sites, where network connections are hard to come by and intermittent energy supply and vandalism are common, these networks aren’t always reliable. Satellite solutions can bridge connectivity gaps if/when a regular network goes down and also offer a redundant system, says founder and CEO of globalCom Africa, David Lipton.

But none of this is a silver bullet. It’s critical that mining companies regularly identify problems and vulnerabilities associated with the technologies they deploy so that they can get an accurate picture of the progress of their digital transformation efforts. These audits provide a benchmark for assessing what impact new technologies are having on various aspects of operations – from production efficiency and safety to sustainability.

Should a mine be forced to shut down because of a technology failure or safety incident, the cost of closure is enormous. This is why modern mine operators are always looking for ways to do things better. When embracing a more proactive and data-driven approach to safety, enabled by smart technologies, miners are empowered to identify, monitor and control risks. Not only does this safeguard mine workers from hazards, but it also contributes to smoother and more efficient operations.


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