High-Risk, High Rewards

Keeping Workers Safe in High-Risk Environments
Written by Karen Hawthorne

Working in natural resources is many things, but it is not 9 to 5 – and it comes with its own risks and rewards.

The rewards can be spectacular, especially when the world is craving the resources you are extracting.

Taking a look at a list of some of the world’s countries with the largest amounts of national resources – the United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Canada – the potential economic value of resources totals about $210.6 trillion.

However, the risks of extracting these resources are unique and often much bigger compared to other jobs. Falls, electrical accidents, cave-ins, explosions, falling trees, vehicular accidents, and cold and heat exposure are some of the biggest categories of risk that workers face under the umbrella of extraction industries. That includes mining and oil and gas production as well as dredging and quarry work.

To further complicate things, the work means you have to go to where the resources are. So consider the logistical challenges of remote locations that do not have quick and easy access to comprehensive medical care if an accident does occur.

In 2021, a scoop bucket dislodged and a part fell down the shaft in the Totten Mine near Sudbury, Ontario in Canada, causing major damage and leaving 35 miners stuck at various levels all the way down to 960 meters, or more than half a mile, underground.

If this was a disaster movie, we would see a scene of miners huddled around flickering lanterns, but technology has changed the reality of mining work. The workers had access to Wi-Fi so they could communicate with the surface and even watch videos on their devices while the rescuers worked their way down to them.

As with most mining situations, the only way out was up and that meant miners having to climb and climb the many series of ladders to get clear of the mine. This was possible for those who were relatively close to the top, but the stress was just too much for those deep in the mine. The team from Ontario Mine Rescue had to use a number of different options to pull up those miners from the depths.

Rescue worker Jason Tailefer shared his experience with the Canadian Press, saying, “They had been down there for 40 hours at that point, they were all exhausted, and some of these guys just physically couldn’t climb a ladder due to old injuries or ailments.”

To get these miners out of the deepest parts of the mine, the team used an AZTEK rope system which can be attached to an anchor and used to pull people by significantly reducing the effort it takes to lift them. In the end, after two days of intense effort, all the miners were safely rescued and there were no injuries reported. While this was the best outcome for this kind of scenario, the rescue workers were at risk as they worked to help others.

What if, in situations as dangerous as a mine collapse or a toxic leak on a site, the first responders could be robots? It may not be that far from becoming a reality.

For instance, recently The New York Fire Department announced the purchase of Spot, a robot dog (yes, it really does look like a dog), who can go into situations that may be too risky for people and provide critical information for rescuers. Having the ability to crawl through debris or into toxic environments to measure levels of flammable chemicals or carbon monoxide will help rescuers make informed decisions about these highly dangerous situations.

And while robots currently are not as nimble as people and can’t crawl over unstable surfaces, they can be made much smaller to get into places where people just can’t go. Think about crawling through a collapsed mine tunnel and sending a robot the size of an insect in to crawl through the gaps to get to people trapped on the other side. Sound like a stretch? Maybe not. Right now Stanford University researchers are developing a robot that can essentially grow in the environment like a vine with a camera on one end to get through impossibly small gaps.

Help can also come from the air as well as the ground. Drones, which have become much more common and more capable, can fly over virtually all terrain to provide an aerial overview of a situation. They can also map out the scope of a situation, using cameras as well as thermal and infrared sensors. This eye in the sky can be invaluable, especially in remote areas where drones can dramatically reduce the time it takes to spot survivors in a vast area.

In addition to visuals and mapping an area, drones can also act as critical first responders by carrying essentials like medical supplies, first aid kits and pharmaceuticals to people, potentially spelling the difference between life and death.

Ultimately, the best way to get through accidents is to avoid them altogether. And there are few work areas where this is more important than offshore oil rigs. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of water, the margin for error is pretty much zero.

Oil rigs need to be well managed by necessity. Small problems can become big problems very quickly, but help is often a long way away. Technology in the form of AI can become a major part of catching a potential problem before it becomes an incident. AI has the capacity to collect vast amounts of data and look for patterns that help prevent accidents before they happen through predictive maintenance.

Take, for example, scrubbers, which are a series of pipes and tanks that are used scrub away hazardous and harmful materials like gases and particles. As a scrubber ages, there are certain signs that begin to appear before it fails. By analyzing the data that comes from the operating scrubber and applying a predictive algorithm, AI can determine when to replace a scrubber or components before a sudden failure occurs which can lead to damage and safety incidents.

Then there’s safety training to consider. When it comes to preventing incidents before they happen, additional training can help prepare inexperienced workers for potentially dangerous situations.

But how can you train new workers in what are by nature more hazardous environments? This is where virtual reality can make a big difference. Inexperienced workers can be exposed to potentially hazardous situations and learn from them without being exposed to actual risk. While virtual reality can’t perfectly capture a dangerous environment, it is a good way to help new workers think more about what to do when they are facing a dangerous situation in real life.

Although robot rescuers, drones and AI might not be ready yet for situations like that at the Totten Mine, today’s miners do have wearables that can make a big impact on safety. As the name implies, these are devices that miners wear during a shift which tap into RFID (Radio-frequency Identification) or the Internet of Things (IoT) to track a worker’s activity during their day while giving them the added safety of being able to press a button in case of an emergency. If there’s a cave-in, wearables can also be used to pinpoint a worker’s location.

It’s important to keep in mind that the need for innovation in places like mines in particular will not be going away even as more countries shift toward green infrastructure and supply chains. Take the rise of EVs (electric vehicles). While these vehicles may not need gasoline, they do need batteries, and many of the key components that go into them like cobalt, nickel and lithium will need to be extracted.

Countries like Canada have large deposits of all of these materials and the demand will only continue to increase. And even though the techniques to extract them will advance to reduce their environmental impact, there will still be risk involved in the extraction process.

That’s why even as we shift toward a greener infrastructure, these high-risk industries will rely on innovations to get to victims faster and to protect workers on the job.



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