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Portable Fatigue Monitoring Devices Save Lives by Preventing Workplace Injuries in Mining Operations

Modern mining operations are often remote and disconnected, but they are a hive of activity. Trucks hauling excavated materials are spread over vast distances at all hours of the day and night. Dozers and excavators are digging, while graders are planing the surface 24 hours a day. Fatigued drivers are performing tasks that are both repetitive and dangerous. Keeping them safe by understanding what is going on at all times across the vastness of a site seemed like an impossible task...until now. 

The advent of connected technology has allowed mining companies to monitor the fatigue level of workers across the entire operation, checking truck operators’ brain waves to detect a degree of exhaustion that may otherwise go unnoticed. If any anomalies are observed, the central operations center is notified. By making sure that no one is pushed past their limit, the SmartCap system—connected by communications devices over a cellular network—saves lives. It prevents accidents, waste, and capital loss. 

Mining has always been amongst the world’s most dangerous professions. But with cellular connectivity and the SmartCap system, the industry is becoming much safer. 

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The Dangers of Fatigue in Mining and Trucking
In 2016, there were four haulage-related fatalities in US mines alone. There were also 1,405 non-fatal haulage injuries. Each number represents a life interrupted or lost, with some very significant emotional and financial burdens on each individual’s family. They also represent time lost on the jobsite, along with compensation claims, vehicle repair costs, and much more. 

Most of these accidents can be traced to fatigue. These are 24-hour operations, with drivers and operators performing repetitive tasks during odd-hours through long shifts. Mining companies have developed sophisticated processes to make sure employees aren’t overworked, but the danger is still there. 

A person working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift is going to experience an abnormal sleep-wake cycle. Someone at the end of a long shift might start to doze off, while others may experience bouts of microsleep without even realizing it. Drivers could lose concentration on dangerous and steep roads, resulting in accidents, injuries or worse. No one wants to take time off from work because they’re tired. And while an office worker poses little danger if they show up to work over-tired, there’s a lot more at stake when you’re working in such a dangerous setting. And even if operations managers are concerned and aware of the problem, they simply can’t monitor everything. 

But there is a way to monitor key warning signs, and it mirrors some of the enormous strides taken in the long-haul trucking industry. It’s a solution that literally entails reading the mind of the driver. 

The Life-Saving Utility of the SmartCap

Australia has an abundance of natural resources, with mining operations centered in the western regions of the nation. This country’s mining industries have grown into a $120 billion per year enterprise, making it one of the most important economic sectors. This explosive growth came with a massive cost: between 1943 and 2000, nearly 100 mining workers were killed per decade, with thousands more workers suffering injuries, many of them life-altering.

But those numbers have changed. There were 42 fatalities in the first decade of this century, while there have been just 13 deaths reported so far in the current decade. This massive shift has been attributed to a concerted public and private effort to reduce the number of injuries and deaths. The Cooperative Resource Center (CRCMining) has joined forces with private mining industries to develop a game-changing device known as the SmartCap. The SmartCap provides accurate and predictive information, which leads to the elimination of microsleeps–a primary cause of driver accidents in the workplace.

The gold standard for monitoring fatigue is the use of EEGs (electroencephalograms), which are used widely in healthcare. EEGs can monitor brain waves, allowing for the detection of fatigue that may otherwise go unnoticed. The challenge was taking that monitoring technique and making it “portable,” so that it could be administered outside a medical facility. 

The SmartCap solution is completely contained in a “ball cap,” which is worn by heavy machine operators during their shifts to monitor electrical activity in the brain. Using this data, SmartCap developed a system for gauging fatigue. A rating of 2 or 3 means things are fine, while 3+ indicates fatigue, and a 4 signals that fatigue levels are extreme and dangerous.

These numbers are displayed on the driver’s smart in-vehicle dashboard, allowing drivers to fully understand and appreciate their potential risk level. The data is also transmitted to central operations, which will then know if a driver is in trouble. They can relieve the driver safely, without jeopardizing their health or the health of the operation. It’s a technology that can save lives. 

Making SmartCaps Work in a Rough Environment
A mining environment is much different from the environment that you’d find at a hospital or medical clinic. Therefore, the primary challenge centered on the creation of robust, outdoor-friendly, and portable fatigue monitoring equipment that would stand up to heavy use, while sustaining consistent connectivity. The SmartCap, like the driver, can’t afford to experience episodes of microsleep—in its case, a lapse in connectivity. 

The original connectivity solution—Wi-Fi—worked throughout the mining site, but once drivers left the site to transport materials to ports or rail yards, they couldn’t be monitored. The industry moved to more reliable and ubiquitous cellular connectivity, but the system had to be both “reliable and rugged,” according to Greg Smyth, the Engineering Manager at SmartCap Technologies. He added that, “product reliability and ease of use were paramount.”

In order to make it work, they turned to Sierra Wireless’ AirLink® solutions, which provided 3G/4G connectivity to a public cellular network. This ensured that the SmartCap would maintain a consistent connection throughout the entire process, regardless of how sprawling the entire logistical network may be. The responsiveness of the AirLink solution, combined with Network Management solutions, became an integral part of the SmartCap project. 

And now this SmartCap technology has spread beyond Australia, to mines in South Africa, and North and South America. It’s also being adapted and utilized in other industries where fatigue could pose a serious danger. These portable microsleep monitoring devices are literally saving lives thanks to their ability to maintain a consistent connection over any network. This new, innovative technology is saving time and money, reducing devastating injuries and, perhaps someday soon, workplace accidents resulting from unrealized microsleep episodes could be a thing of the past. Making jobs safer is the number one priority for any industry. Start with Sierra to learn more.