Big brother, since George Orwell introduced him in his novel 1984, has personified all that we ought to fear from a culture of surveillance. But, at a time when we have never been more monitored, increased data collection may be the key to the next level of workplace safety.

Rescuing a colleague in an underground mining emergency is the last situation anyone wants to be in. In addition to the inherent danger presented by the smoke, heat, machines and the very rock surrounding you, the emotional stress can be overwhelming. But, thanks to some new technology being piloted at the International Mine Rescue Competition in Sudbury in August, the job may get just a bit easier.

For the first time, participants will wear sensors made by Equivital, transmitting their vital stats – such as heart rate and breathing rate – in real time to team leaders, along with a host of other data sets including core temperature and location. The goal is to give the leaders continuous awareness of team members’ whereabouts and well-being, in order to prevent the rescuers from needing rescuing themselves. “It’s exciting,” said Sandra Dorman, director of the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) and an associate professor at Laurentian University. Dorman is one of the people behind this year’s mine rescue pilot project, and she is keen to point out that these are just the first steps. “The technology is just exploding right now.”

Equivital, said Dorman, is unique because it is the first wearable biometric sensor that is intrinsically safe. It has one band that attaches around the ribcage and another that goes over one shoulder and, being designed for military use, it is rugged and safe for industrial use. Most recently available wearable technology, as these sensors are known, are developed for sports applications, so sensors that stand up to the technical standards and rigour of the mining world are new territory. “Many wearables have applications in the workplace even if the companies that are designing them don’t know that yet,” she said.

While no mines are currently using devices like Equivital in day-to-day operations, proponents believe these could be the key to the next wave of safety improvements in the industry, especially now that safety culture is so ingrained. “We’ve bottomed out [of potential improvements to safety culture],” said Dirk Claessens, vice-president of analytics at IBM, who recognizes that past improvements have been huge. But, he added, “The old pyramid paradigm, where for every fatality you’ve got 10 serious accidents and 30 minor accidents and so on doesn’t exist anymore.”

Figuring out fatalities

To understand why the concept of wearable technology holds so much promise now, it is important to put safety in context. The fatality rate in U.S. metal mines over the last decade was about half of what it was in the previous ten years, and more than 90 per cent less than it was in the 1930s. A higher degree of automation and a commitment to installing a culture of safety have been the keys to these successes.

But a closer look at the last few years tells a more nuanced story. While in some years there were a remarkably low number of fatalities in the United States (16 in 2011 and 2012, 17 in 2009), in others there were still over 30 deaths. “What people do not seem to get under control is fatalities,” said Claessens. “When they occur, people are left scratching their heads thinking ‘how is that possible?’”

He said he believes collecting reams of data on employees while at work will reveal new information and result in major breakthroughs in safety and productivity at the same time. Workers who are not injured as they gain more experience are often more efficient, and training employees for the same position repeatedly is an unnecessary expense many would be happy to do away with.

Richard Paquin, a national representative for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, is wary of the privacy implications such data gathering entails. He points out that the number of sensors in today’s mines already allows us to put together a fairly accurate picture of what happens during an incident. “We had a fatality here in Sudbury about four months ago,” he recalled. “The worker was hit by the machine he was operating.” Using sensors in the tunnel walls, the vehicle the worker was driving and on his person, an investigation was able to determine where he went, the speed at which he traveled, when he hit the wall and approximately when the operator was struck by his mobile equipment.

“There are a number of patterns which are very hard to explain with the current approach,” said Claessens. “We need data to really understand where these fatalities come from, and we need to automate data collection as much as possible and gather as many data points as possible. If you can add near misses – which occur on an order of magnitude greater than fatalities themselves – to the discussion, you really start getting very rich data to look at.” And patterns might begin to emerge. For example, we might begin to know whether near misses occur at a particular time of day, say closer to the beginning or end of each shift, or even whether they are correlated to weather conditions or other unexpected variables.But these sensors do not answer all questions. For example, why did the driver hit the wall? Was he exhausted? Dehydrated? Overheating? Maybe there was some sign earlier in the day that, if it had been detected, might have raised an alarm. And moreover, more information could help understand how events like this come to pass despite excellent safety culture.

The technology

So what does the equipment look like that could provide the data we lack? Typically there are the sensors, a mobile device to receive what the sensors transmit and software that organizes the reams of data and sends information to the correct people automatically. The sensors can take many different forms: the vest-like Equivital, smart watches, smart helmets such as those offered by LifeBeam and smart goggles that monitor field of vision. And in these formats, sensors can now relay heart rate, skin temperature, core temperature, air temperature, gas analysis of the surrounding air, location, energy expenditure, vibration exposure and basically any other biometric data you can think of. Of course, the whole lot depends on wireless networks being deployed across the entire mine site.

IBM has developed what Claessens calls the “Guardian Angel” software solution, which integrates information from sensors made by Texas Instruments and LifeBeam. Using a smartphone or tablet, the worker is connected to the network and protected by a number of software shields. “It could be a shield against tripping, it could be a shield against exhaustion or against high temperature and so on,” Claessens said. A “shield” essentially defines what parameters are acceptable and, if they are exceeded, alerts the worker that they need to respond to prompts from the system. A trip/fall shield could use Texas Instruments accelerometer data, for example. If the worker moves suddenly towards the ground and is unable to respond properly, an alert is triggered. “People in the neighbourhood will be alerted, the shift supervisor will be alerted and the safety supervisor as well.”

ApplicationsClaessens currently has several pilot projects running, the most advanced being with an American steelmaker that he is not yet able to name, which has decided to pursue implementation of the Guardian Angel system on a permanent basis. Other wearables-focused partnerships are also moving forward, like one between Deloitte and Vancouver-based Vandrico, an enterprise software company focused on industrial wearable solutions. Jess Sloss, Vandrico’s customer success lead, said within the next three months he hopes to have much more information to share from ongoing trials in the mining industry. John Wang, the leader of Deloitte Wearables (part of Deloitte Digital), said no off-the-shelf wearable devices appeared suitable for their trials, so the partnership is using hobbyist technology to create mining-specific solutions.

Despite wearable technology being very new, the potential has been noticed by some of the most advanced mining companies. Rick Howes, CEO of Dundee Precious Metals (see “Underground achiever,” our Sept. 2014 profile of Chelopech), said that though his company has so far only implemented radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking, he is well aware of the potential for further development. “Wearables will have particular application in deep underground mines where heat and high seismic risks and potential rockbursts are a problem,” he said. “Special clothing that will adapt to the environment to provide cooling or heating as needed will also be needed in the future for these deep mines.”

Heat stress is, in fact, a major focus of Dorman’s research and, besides this summer’s mine rescue competitors, she is also working with a subgroup of Sudbury miners to assess the suitability of wearables for their daily work. In these preliminary stages, she is hoping to evaluate the data the Equivital sensor generates for workers during a typical shift, and use this data to describe worker conditions with the aim to provide recommendations to reduce worker heat fatigue. “Heat stress can be really dangerous,” she said. “In early stages you could have cramping, you might [eventually] pass out and technically you could die. In a mine rescue scenario you could be putting other people at risk because now you’re going to have to be rescued as well.” According to Dorman, the real potential for the research with Equivital, related to heat stress, will be in showing whether this device can successfully prevent an event from happening by warning workers of an imminent event prior to onset.

And Dorman said vibration measurement sensors could help mine management teams understand when and where their workforce is at risk and where control strategies could be implemented. “For people that drive all day, and especially in mines, there’s a lot of vibration that comes up your spine,” she said, noting that there is already an app for smartphones that people can use to monitor their exposure. Something similar, but mining-specific, could help workers who are forbidden from bringing smartphones on site. Continued exposure to high levels of vibration will result in injury and inability to work, so if levels reach a certain intensity, companies could reduce speed limits in trouble spots, or prioritize smoothing road surfaces in order to safeguard the health of employees. “This device makes safety a little more tangible,” Dorman said.A second major application, Howes noted, will be in “monitoring and alarming human workplace gas exposures such as blasting gases, diesel gases, low oxygen and smoke.”


Rob McEwen, who hosted Claessens at one of his eponymous company’s innovation seminars last year, said that while he sees the potential for these technologies to improve safety, he “can foresee pinch points” with respect to monitoring employees’ biological data. “It’s certainly an area of interest, it’s just not an area we’ve applied much effort to yet.”

Unifor’s Paquin is, more or less, the human embodiment of a pinch point in the widespread adoption of wearables. His primary concern, understandably, is the intimate nature of the information collected by biometric sensors. “I probably would object from the word ‘go,’” he said. “When you’re dealing with medical stuff, it’s hard to manage because you don’t know who has access to what information. It becomes a database of some sort that certain people can have access to that shouldn’t.”

Paquin oversaw the implementation of RFID tags in Sudbury operations, which also presented their fair share of concerns for the union. “Any time you introduce new systems or new technology, nobody knows where the boundaries are,” he said, noting that RFID, while it does pose privacy concerns, is different than continuously monitoring an employee’s health. Health, and particularly medical information, he said, is strictly regulated and should not fall into the wrong hands.

Dorman said convincing people that these devices are in their own best interest is critical. “It’s helpful for workers to see what the data actually looks like because a worker might have this perception that the people using data from these devices will know exactly what the worker is doing while wearing them,” she added. “That’s not true. When you look at somebody’s heart rate, for example, depending on the rhythm, it either goes up because the worker has become more active or maybe he or she is stressed. But you don’t know what they are doing that is causing the stress or what activity they are performing, you just know that his or her heart rate and breathing rate went up.”And yet continuous monitoring is exactly where Claessens would like his technology to go. “This is condition monitoring of your employees,” he said. “We’ll be able to be predictive about what the condition of the employee is going to be half a day from now and prevent an incident from happening.”

Also key to convincing employees that this new technology is good for them is an easy interface that gives them uncomplicated access to their own data. That is why IBM is partnering with Apple to develop user-friendly platforms. And in the future, perhaps it will require an approach known as “serious gaming,” where employees are rewarded in real time for completing tasks in a safe manner. This could be with money, or even just with a competitive video game-style points system.

For now, Claessens is focused on putting together a winning pitch. “Number one, we need a couple of good projects and to publicize the hell out of them,” he said. “What we also need to do, just to make the case stronger is, since any safety process has a productivity flipside, to enrich the case by saying it will give us good insights into the productivity of the employees on site and that’s a financial benefit you’ll have straight away.

“This is available and it can be deployed,” Claessens maintains. “It takes maybe six months to get your first plant up and running on the thing, and it costs you maybe a couple million, but not tens of millions of dollars.”