Building safer sites

From a business perspective much of the debate around remote operations and automation centres on improving productivity and cutting costs. 
From the employee or union side, the focus is on job cuts, and having computers taking work normally assigned to people. 
But outside these main areas experts say the safety improvements these initiatives bring are too often ignored.  
In an industry that's rightfully paranoid about keeping workers safe, experts say remote ops and automation are the key to making mining roles safer. 
Just as new machinery took much of the danger and physical work out of mining in the 20th century, companies are looking for software and hardware to take an even more active role in extracting minerals. 
And at the same time as introducing these initiatives, experts are confident they can retain job numbers, and even improve the quality of work for those employees. 

Controlling safety 

Speaking at the Honeywell Users Group earlier this year Honeywell's Gerry Gutierrez said more companies were now focusing on how automation and remote control could help their safety records. 
Gutierrez said that because mining companies had developed a reputation for a focus on safety, they were constantly looking for new ways to make improvements on their sites. 
"Safety is a key aspect and a growing one in this sector," he said. 
"The thing about health, safety, and the environment is that there's a responsibility for these operators to have high standards on operations and to keep that level of performance." 
Gutierrez said by introducing remote operations and automation workers were moved away from the frontline of mining projects. 
He said moving workers away from these danger zones would translate to less fatalities and injuries. 
But more than just cutting these core concerns, remote operations allow miners to better standardise sites, and keep better records of what's going on. 
Such improvements mean companies are better armed at tracking if safety measures are in place and being used effectively. 
"By using these centres we're able to enforce better compliance of safety, better protection, and better use of equipment on site," he said. 
"That's also while we're relocating and moving some of these people out of these locations so that there's less risk exposure to the people on site." 
Nevertheless these claims are up for challenge, primarily by the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMEU). 
In its long running campaign against remote operations and automation, the CFMEU has claimed that the safety benefits claimed by miners are disingenuous. 
According to the CFMEU the most dangerous parts of a mine are the workshops, which will still remain once these new initiatives are introduced. 
By the CFMEU's logic remote operations will only lead to benefits for the employer, and might even result in job cuts for other workers. 
But the CFMEU, mining companies, and automation experts all have their own agendas to run in this debate, and so the veracity of their comments is always up to question. 

Competing claims 

To form a full picture of safety and how remote operations would play out in this environment, Australian Mining put the word out to its community. 
Whilst it was an unscientific survey, workers gave us varying accounts of the most dangerous places on site. 
Some said it was in the pit or at the coalface, and some said it was in the workshops. 
And quite a few marked driving the roads leading to some mines, struggling under a heavy rise in traffic, as the most dangerous part of the job. 
The feedback confirms what many would suspect already. 
There is truth to claims by both the CFMEU and mining companies, and neither party is completely out of touch on the topic. 
Like so many issues in the mining industry there's no clear winner in this debate. 
Both remote control and automation experts, along with the unions, are trying to work toward a safer environment for employees, whilst at the same time gaining improvements on production. 
Combining these interests and views into a single picture will put us on the road to a safer workplace, with automation and remote control playing a key part in the future landscape.

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