The mining industry has a reputation for being a risky business, with varied and serious health risks. But mining doesn’t have to be unsafe – thanks to strict safety legislation, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy recorded only 51 fatalities in 2019, the lowest ever number of mining fatalities for the country on record.
That said, 51 deaths are still 51 too many, and medical deaths in 2019 due to occupational diseases (caused by, for example, coal dust or harmful chemicals) did actually increase compared to the previous year: 25 more cases were reported for gold mines, and 2 for coal mines.
Managing risk isn’t easy, and meeting Safety, Health, Environment and Quality (SHEQ) standards involves the laborious documentation of an entire safety management system, including identifying what the hazards are to workers, assessing their consequences and instituting mechanisms to control those risks. “In our experience of working with some of Africa’s biggest mining companies, the reccurring challenge for them in meeting SHEQ standards is the massive administrative task it involves, aside from the training and monitoring,” says Muhammad Ali, managing director of WWISE, an International Standards Organization (ISO) training, consulting and implementation specialist. “Many enterprises only implement the SHE management system and train their supervisors, but this still leaves the mining company highly vulnerable,” he adds. “If only partial training is done, supervisors and workers themselves still lack the essential knowledge needed to ensure optimal health and safety, environmental management, or quality in the work place.”
Now, a growing confidence in digitisation is seeing an increasing number of mining companies use e-training and e-monitoring to drive greater efficiencies in their business and meeting tough SHEQ requirements. Indeed, the global accounting firm Ernest & Young’s (EY) annual Top 10 business risks facing mining and metals in 2021 noted that there were indications of growing digital confidence among miners, with digital becoming “business as usual” for large mining outfits.
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted how digitisation can ensure business continuity across many industries, and mining is no exception. Companies are now recognising the value of remote working and virtual teams to help keep people safe, productive and engaged, and an increasing quantity of formerly paper-based training courseware is being digitised. “We’re seeing a significant upswing, in mining companies and from workers too, on how they can better their SHEQ compliance and knowledge using eLearning methods,” says Mike Hanly, managing director of New Leaf Technologies, a Joburg-headquartered learning software and solutions company that specialises in the mining sector.
Digitised eLearning courseware is often far more engaging and memorable because it is multimedia in nature, combining words and graphics with 3-D modelling and animation, virtual reality and augmented reality material. Because of its instructional design nature, it’s able to hold trainees’ attention while explaining sometimes difficult concepts. And, notes Hanly, “It’s convenient as it allows employees to train largely in their own time, at their own pace, and on a device they prefer to use.”
Management systems, including training and monitoring, are being integrated online, says Ali. Systems for OHSAS 18001 (health and safety management), ISO 9001 (quality management) and ISO 14001 (environmental management) are now being blended together through one seamless online utility that can be accessed anywhere, any time.
A key feature is the eLearning/training component of these management systems, which Hanly believes offers several benefits. Because of the volatile nature of the industry in general, course content can be continually updated quickly and effortlessly. There’s a level of consistency and uniformity in what the courseware is and how it’s taught, regardless of where a mining operations may be, which allows for a greater level of quality. And monitoring is easier, enabling mining companies to generate quick and insightful reports which can identify successes and what needs to be capitalised on, as well as where the gaps are and how they should be addressed.
And last but certainly not least, online learning does away with the cost of hiring, flying in or accommodating classroom training facilitators, which saves costs for the employer.