How to reduce fatigue in three of mining’s most common jobs

Mining is one of Australia's primary industries and a major part of the economy despite employing slightly more than two per cent of the country's total labour force.

In many ways, Australia's mining industry serves as an example to the rest of the world, but there is still one area in which we are trailing behind – safety.

We have yet to adopt the strict European standards on dust, noise and vibration exposure, and fatigue is one of the most common reasons for onsite injuries. It is also one of the most preventable.

Many miners are FIFO workers and the excessive commuting times, long working weeks and tendency towards shift work impact heavily on the levels of fatigue, making it even more important to recognise the signs and symptoms of muscle exhaustion.

However there are simple way to overcome the top three most common causes of fatigue in the industry, and reduce these everyday issues.

1. Drilling

Rotary hammer and combihammer drilling over long periods of time can cause high levels of fatigue and when your hand and arm muscles tire, it leaves you more at risk of the tool rotating in your hand from a drill bit jam. 

Drill bit jams are a common issue in mines, as you're dealing with a range of different rock types, textures and densities. The first step to avoiding injury is to make sure you've got the right sized equipment for the job. 

Bigger is not always better, especially when you're performing a repetitive task over many hours. Bigger tools are heavier and take a lot more energy to operate and when they're used on a job that requires smaller equipment, it is more dangerous and increases your risk of injury.

One mistake that people make when choosing their drills is looking at the weight class, as opposed to the impact energy provided by the equipment. The impact energy is what you should be judging a tool by, as the weight class will only be relevant if you're working in a downward orientation (floor). If you're drilling into a wall or ceiling, weight class is insignificant.

Another misconception is that the harder you push the drill, the better it's going to work. Drilling is a process of a chisel bit that's rotating and pulverising the base material into dust, so it all comes down to impact energy and how effectively that's transferred from tool to the end of the drill bit. The higher quality tools will have a higher energy impact, making them an easier, safer and more effective choice.

When drilling into concrete or rock, the dust generated can cause a long list of serious issues, from asthma and breathing difficulties to eye, ear and throat infections – there's even links to cancer. Although it's strongly recommended you wear a mask whenever working with concrete, they offer limited protection. 

Opt for Dust Removal Systems (DRS) which eliminates the debris that's been created and leaves you with a clean work area while reducing your exposure to dust. It also improves the speed of the job (as there's less dust getting in the way of the chiselling or cutting) and it helps prevent your tool from overheating, increasing its longevity. Hilti has also recently launched dustless drilling technology, whereby the pulverised material is removed from source which is the working end of the drill bit into either a standard wet-dry vacuum cleaner or a hybrid cordless/corded vacuum cleaner, making the system totally flexible to your jobsite requirements.

2. Demolition

Once again, it is imperative to get the right sized equipment for the job. Hilti has a team of project and field engineers who offer a comprehensive technical advisory service to help your mine site choose the right tools for the specific application.

If you've been in the industry for a while, you'll be familiar with the painful white knuckle syndrome that stems from long-term use of vibrating machines or tools. This is a serious disease that affects the nerves, joints, blood vessels and muscles in the fingers and hands causing numbness, change of skin colour and loss of strength – in extreme cases sufferers have had to have their fingers amputated. The best way to minimise this is to invest in tools that have Active Vibration Reduction (AVR) technology which reduces the vibration caused by the pneumatic hammering action during operation by separating the handle of the tool from the body of the tool.

When using a breaker for floor slab demolition, it's important to start from the perimeter and work your way in, as this reduces the strain and the force required.

It's also a good idea to check the exposure action value (EAV) of the tool. This value tells you how long it's recommended that the tool be used without a break. Using it past this point will significantly increase the risk of injury from fatigue. The EAV can be found by contacting your tool manufacturer. Hilti has this information for review as guidelines and best practice.

3. Anchoring

Anchoring is another repetitive task that is common in the mining industry, and is generally considered a mundane and mindless chore that requires little skill. Many of the miners I speak to haven't been exposed to any formalised training for anchor installation and it tends to just be an expertise that's Chinese whispered from colleague to colleague. Hilti offers comprehensive training performed by anchoring professionals who provide tips on everything from bore hole cleaning to choosing the right tools and materials to complete the task.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a result of muscle fatigue, generally associated with actions such as constant pulling of the trigger on the chemical dispensing tool, putting unnecessary pressure and strain on the operator, meaning you can only do this particular job for a certain period as you'll tire quickly. Opting for cordless dispensing technology will completely eliminate the risk of this and although these are sometimes considered a 'luxury' on-site, not only do they reduce injury but they increase productivity and reduce wastage because you pre-measure the amount of chemical required.

For mechanical anchoring, you can use a torque bar which allows you to install stud anchors and tighten to the correct force in just three seconds. These torque bars speed up the installation process and also increase accuracy as they remove the potential of under or over-torquing stud anchors with a ratchet element which cuts out at the prescribed force.

The mining industry is currently going through a reinvention with conventional wisdom and methods being ditched in favour of more innovative solutions and productive methods of practice. With this reinvention, a push for new technologies has come, making the injuries and lack of productivity that traditionally stemmed from fatigue almost completely preventable.

*Ryan Jones is ​Hilti's national civil, energy and infrastructure manager

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.