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Leveraging technology to ramp-up operations safely and efficiently.

MMS's aim here is to set out both the short and long term actions policies to enable mining operations to restart effectively and in a responsible manner for their employees.

Executive summary

MMS's aim here is to set out both the short and long term actions policies to enable mining operations to restart effectively and in a responsible manner for their employees. We believe there is a need for further planning as limited public information is available about how mining companies are required to proceed as COVID-19 is a fluid situation. The COVID-19 virus threatens the livelihood of mining workers and subsequently the livelihood of large communities. This is why effective management from mining companies regarding the spread of COVID-19 needs to occur on all operations, throughout their entire value chain, to convince the mineral council, employees and the wider community that they are adequately prepared to ramp up operations to full scale and get the South African economy restarted to save jobs. The focus of this blog is how technology can aid the return-to-work process. This blog will take a closer look at the immediate challenges of ramp up on-site, identifying high-risk areas which need to be managed closely as well as the minimization of staff on-site through the use of technology such as MMS-WIRE.

Status Quo in South African Mining

Some might argue that it is putting mine workers’ lives at risk to resume mining in a time like this. However, mining has always been dangerous and the mining community has been successful in the past with alleviating the dangers of mining with the implementation of technology. The COVID-19 challenge is yet another challenge that needs to be alleviated. Innovative thinking is required to produce a sound plan to resume operations, in a safer environment, that can be implemented and refined. This challenge also poses an opportunity for mining companies to differentiate themselves and become thought leaders in this unprecedented challenge.

The Minerals Council has developed standard operating procedures for the return to work: The priorities for all operations will be to:

  • equip employees with the knowledge and means to be able to protect themselves and their families;

  • to put in place the systems and standard operating procedures that apply best practice in hygiene and social distancing;

  • to screen and detect employees who are ill, and provide for quarantine facilities where this is necessary;

  • to provide medical care for employees, and where possible, for families and communities as well.

Immediate challenges onsite​:

The following preventative measures have been globally recognised as the most effective in "flattening the curve" and are likely to remain the most effective measures until a vaccine becomes available. In the mining context, the scale of operations poses significant challenges in effectively carrying out these measures.

1. Social distancing (applied from home, to transport to work and back home.)

2. Personal hygiene (washing your hands and never touching your face.)

3. PPE (as recommended for COVID-19 prevention)

PPE and personal hygiene on this scale, amongst thousands of workers, is difficult to manage and poses a high risk of a regulatory non-compliance which would be catastrophic to companies. However, reducing the number of onsite staff not only contributes to social distancing but also makes the management of personal hygiene and PPE easier. According to infectious disease simulations that are run-such as the one depicted below-extensive distancing is the most effective method of flattening the infection curve.

Statistically, having a lower headcount increases the chances of successfully restarting operations with zero harm, as well as saving cost on other control measures.

High-risk staff and areas where more oversight is required

Most human interaction on processing sites takes place outside of the plant. The areas with a relatively high probability of social interaction where social distancing is essential are transport areas, security gates, control rooms, meeting rooms, smoking areas, locker rooms, office buildings, cafeterias, kitchens, sanitary areas and supporting departments offices.

Within all these areas of the mine, the biggest risk remains people of high-risk medical profiles making them more susceptible to COVID-19 fatality. People with various types of illnesses or diseases like diabetes, chronic heart disease, TB, AIDS or those with a history of immune deficiency - as well as people aged 60 or older- have a higher statistical chance of not recovering from COVID-19. If one of your employees or contractors with critical knowledge or experience of your operations are at high-risk, how do you empower them to remain in the value chain, from a safe environment and with peace of mind? Remote working has answered this question for numerous companies around the world including our own operations at MMS.

How to use technology to ensure SOP’s are complied with and improve social distancing

To ensure work is performed to a high standard, tools and the ability to understand anomalies need to be identified faster and be communicated effectively between teams and shifts. Technology can be leveraged to disseminate information and workflows effectively, aiding teams to work independently with reduced numbers on-site, which in turn will assist with social distancing and “flattening the curve”.

What is WIRE and how can it help with remote working capability

WIRE is our web-based reporting platform that collates plant information through a comprehensive business-rules-engine, to aid real-time decision making, makes remote work accessible to all users and deliver results. WIRE enables remote monitoring of operations in real-time, through WIRE's flexible platform and allows for remote collaboration, communication, planning and priority-driven action tracking with alerts for management. In terms of adding remote working capability to an organisation, WIREempowers users with:

  • Google Chrome-based access (from any device) to real-time data for analysis with automated reports and alerts.

  • Sharing info is made easier to enable teams to collaborate using commenting features -that people are familiar with - similar to those available on social media platforms.

  • Reduced work in control rooms through automated control room event logging.

  • Real-time alerts linked to sirens or alarms: WIRE has the capability to collate various information feeds, video footage that can potentially be interpreted to set off alarms if business rules are broken. For example, if people congregate closer than 2m an alarm could be triggered and the statistics of such events can be tracked to improve safety measures to further mitigate the risk of COVID 19 spread.

An MMS client prepared for ramp up and remote work with WIRE

One of our clients has two of its sites that are ready to remotely monitor their operations and collaborate on WIRE. Speaking to their head metallurgist at the halfway point through the first phase of national lockdown, she was confident that WIRE would play a significant role in allowing her team to accomplish their day to day technical support from home. With WIRE configured to monitor and automatically report on all parts of their operation, when operations restart, she can confidently report to all stakeholders and management on exactly what the state of operations are and provide accurate guidance for the operators on-site, without having to physically be on site.

She and other metallurgists, managers and other personnel not directly involved in operations can leverage the platform to continue their day to day workflows offsite, as WIRE is cloud-based and there is no charge for additional users. Meetings can be carried out over Microsoft Teams or other approved video conferencing platforms whilst sharing screens, showing the real-time performance of plants with comments being logged to contextualise the data and enable effective discussion and planning of operations. Actions can be logged and tracked directly in WIRE, comments added to data with email notifications to spur action.

WIRE can quickly be deployed to monitor the client's other facilities and assets such as tailings dams and other plants because the foundations of the WIRE integration have been completed.

This enables users to be rapidly added into WIRE to exponentially grow the number of remote working personnel and reduce the onsite head-count which will maximise workforce efficiency whilst adhering to government regulations for the prevention of COVID 19 spread.

Long term: Workforce of the future

These measures and the leveraging of WIRE should not just be a short term management strategy to manage the spread of COVID-19, but form part of the long term vision to create a multiskilled, remote capable workforce for the future. The COVID-19 challenge might be the catalyst that accelerates these changes and creates new behaviours that persist to prepare business operations and influence the associated communities for future events of unprecedented nature, to ensure resistance and longevity of companies and their communities.

In addition to the future of mining, we found two key points from an article called The Future of Work: the Changing Skills Landscape for Miners , a report for the Minerals Council of Australia. Our two key take aways from this report were:

  • Technology can create significant savings.

  • The shifting distribution of occupation types in future industry workforces will also bring with it a different distribution of skills in the workforce. Analysis of the skills map using the future composition of the workforce shows movement in the demand for certain skills in the future workforce. The table below shows ten skills with the greatest growth in demand ‘Growing Skills’ and those with the greatest decrease in demand- ‘declining skills’.

In conclusion

COVID-19 has caused uncertainty but it is also spurring action. Currently, no single technology solution can solve this challenge for an entire value chain, but recent technological advances have enabled an iterative approach that can cause massive improvements in safety and business longevity. Finding the right technology solutions that can assist mining companies to create order in the midst of the chaos- caused by ramping up operations during COVID-19 times- is a tall order. In our opinion, choosing the right technology solutions for this given challenge should be prioritised on the following characteristics:

  • Ability to reduce onsite staff numbers and contribute to social distancing

  • Ability to cross integrate with other systems and form part of the ecosystem

  • Time required to deploy - projects with 6-18 month timelines might not contribute in time

  • Project’s dependency on physical on-site time. WIRE can be remotely deployed with no personnel presence required

Digitization does have a reputation of replacing work and in the socio-economic landscape of South Africa, implementing technologies that automate manual labour in order to remove labour forces from a site can cause other challenges. However, given the current situation, technologies like WIRE have the potential to prevent fatalities, which is the critical priority for all mining operations at the moment. Technologies like WIRE don't replace the workforce, but rather empowers employees to continue adding value from a safe environment as well as upskilling them for the future workforce as part of the long term vision.

Disclaimer: All reasonable precautions have been taken by MMS to verify the information contained in this publication. The published material is being distributed without warranty of any kind, either express or implied. The responsibility for the interpretation and use of the material lies with the reader. In no event shall MMS be liable for damages arising from its use.

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