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Wearables keep mine workers safe around big machinery

Posted On: Feb. 5, 2018 12:00 AM CST

Wearables keep mine workers safe around big machinery

Proximity detection and collision avoidance systems are widely utilized in the mining sector, with wearables tracking employee locations, sounding alarms and even automatically stopping equipment if it gets too close to the miners.

“That has led to a dramatic drop in crushing fatalities in underground mines,” said Fred W. Smith IV, director of natural resources and head of U.S. mining and metals at Willis Towers Watson P.L.C. in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The next evolution is in the use of smart caps that employ electroencephalography, also referred to as EEG or brain waves, to monitor brain activity, he said. EEG is a typically noninvasive method often used to diagnose and monitor health conditions such as epilepsy and sleep disorders. But a Brisbane, Australia-based company called SmartCap Technologies Pty Ltd. is using EEG technology to monitor workforces for fatigue, meaning an employee’s ability to resist sleep, and providing alerts as they progress on a risk scale.

“If you look at human error incidents in any industry, mining included, probably 6070% involve fatigue,” Mr. Smith said. The smart caps go “beyond the telematics and proximity (alerts) and actually goes into more of a fusing of a biological and digital world. That’s starting to take off in mines.” Several global mining giants such as Melbourne, Australia-based Rio Tinto Ltd. have been using such biometric evaluation devices in their operations for years.

“It’s gaining steam, but I would say it’s still early phase,” Mr. Smith said. “The proximity and collision avoidance systems are more widely used. You’d be hard pressed to find a mine that didn’t use those. But the wearables, the biometrics, that’s something that’s a bit newer.”

However, the mining companies need to be aware of the privacy implications of collecting this information, he said.

“That’s something that the human resource departments are going to have to tread carefully on, but I haven’t really heard of any significant pushback by employees,” Mr. Smith said. “Some of these things like the proximity units are bulky and heavy, so you get pushback. But at the end of the day, if it’s potentially saving lives, you’re not going to find a whole lot of resistance. It’s just a matter of making it simple and comfortable to wear.”

But privacy will likely be a consideration as companies increasingly wade into realtime biometric screening and evaluation, raising questions about what’s being done with the data and how it’s being stored, he said.