The total rate of workplace deaths in the mining industry equates to 3.84 fatalities per 100 000 workers, which is almost 70% higher than the national rate of 2.29 (3). Inquiries into major disasters in Australian mines have consistently made recommendations aimed at addressing perceived deficiencies in the coal industry's training arrangements, or the knowledge base of industry personnel (2). In order to prevent accidental deaths and injuries in industry, we need to understand why they happen.
We can group the factors which cause accidents and injuries into two categories: Personal or behavioural, and environmental. For example, unsafe lifting techniques in manual labour can contribute to injury, as can mining sites with poor lighting and ventilation (4). Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) serves to mitigate the risks posed to safety from both of these contributors.
However, while traditional physical PPE, such as high-visibility clothing, hard hats, earplugs and gloves, still perform a vital role in ensuring workers' safety, PPE itself is not immune to a technological upgrade. Wearable technology, or smart PPE, is becoming increasingly prevalent in the industry, marking a new wave of safety technology.
Smart PPE is the next generation of risk-prevention technology, which combines traditional methods of protection with enhanced materials or electronic components (5). By connecting the worker over Bluetooth, the internet, smartphones, and cloud-based analytics platforms, smart PPE has the capacity to deliver real-time safety information or alerts to workers in the field and their supervisors remotely. Smart PPE can also send critical data and location information, minimise exposure to hazards, and automatically adjust to internal and external conditions.
Wearable technology has increased in popularity since the advent of smartwatches and fitness trackers. We are more comfortable than ever with continuous data collection, especially as it pertains to our health. The rise of smart PPE capitalises on this commercial popularity by introducing wearable technology in industries not previously concerned with workers' health monitoring.
Most recently, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has generated a rise in awareness of the importance of personal hazard protection in the workplace. The culture around workers' safety has changed, once it became evident that entire industries could be functionally useless without providing their workers with the appropriate PPE and environmental conditions to prevent the spread of a highly contagious virus.
“Before COVID hit, I’d say there was a growing awareness [of smart PPE], but the adoption was low,” Bill Pennington, research director for EHS at Verdantix, explains. “It was nice to have. Now, it’s not as much a nice to have as it is a need to have.” (6)
There are thousands of different physiological metrics that smart PPE is able to monitor, which can be used to address any number of safety concerns - everything from fever and heat exhaustion to cognitive fatigue and improper lifting technique. When hazardous thresholds for these concerns are reached, alerts are activated and pathways enacted to return the worker to a safe environment and level of functioning. In this way, smart PPE is able to function as an early warning system and protect against further physical deterioration, injury or even death.
Lex Burgh, the President of AIG Global Casualty, outlines that smart PPE and smart clothing “allows the site manager to understand where all their workers are and when they are in an unsafe condition or an unsafe place. They can look at that on an aggregate basis… There’s a real benefit here both from a financial standpoint in terms of reducing the cost of risk and improving the quality of someone’s work experience.” (6).
The advent of new technology is not without challenges, however; designing smart PPE is not as simple as adding electronics to existing protective gear. An entirely new product must be designed, manufactured, and tested (7). Additionally, as with all introductions of new technology, there is a learning curve. Workers need to adapt to the requirements of the smart PPE devices, which may mean making time for charging or software updates or undergoing training about the proper use of the devices. There is also the challenge of establishing industry standards of use and an appropriate framework for testing and certification (5). When the lives of industrial workers and their colleagues depend on the function of a smart device, however, these are small prices to pay for safety.
Established companies, such as 3M and Honeywell, have launched product offerings (8, 9), and start-up companies have also introduced products into the smart PPE market.
The benefit of smart PPE is in its predictive power: as the wearable technology can monitor multiple physiological metrics, physical and cognitive deterioration can be detected before it even occurs. Hazardous early warning thresholds can be integrated with safety protocols, and individualised to a whole workforce if needed. In this way, the devastating impacts of heat stress, cognitive fatigue and other insults can be mitigated before more harm is caused.
Canaria Technologies have launched the Canaria-V, a non-invasive, wearable smart PPE device that measures changes in the wearer’s physiology via transmissive photoplethysmography (PPG) technology and extracts metrics related to Cognitive Fatigue and Heat Stress. In 2019, cognitive fatigue was cited as the underlying cause of 144 fatalities in the mining sector, in which over 30% of these affected machinery operators and drivers (10). Workers in Australian climates also contend with heat stress; at least 1,600 serious heat stress incidents occur each summer in Australian workplaces, at a conservative primary cost of $10.4M to industry (11).
Smart PPE represents a significant step forward in the technological advances of our time if it can be integrated consistently into the industry.
10. Review of all fatal accidents in mines and quarries from 2000 to 2019