Wearable devices have been found to help workers avoid fatigue-related incidents while driving mine haul trucks, according to the results of a new study.
The finding comes following a multi-year project conducted by researcher Emily Tetzlaff in partnership with Torex Gold that was conducted at the gold miner's operations in Mexico.
“We know that this is an issue that's faced across multiple industries, but it's a massive concern for the mining industry, because we've got a lot of passive fatigue that can happen with mobile operators,” she explained.
Tetzlaff is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa and a former researcher with the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) in Sudbury.
“And this passive fatigue, it's exacerbated by the shift cycle that the site might be working, it's exacerbated by the sedentary behaviour, travelling on these roads that they're super familiar with, and then we've got all the environmental features — so, if you're operating at night, you've got low lighting, a humid environment, high heat with this workforce as well.”
Tetzlaff presented her findings during the CIM's 2022 Maintenance, Engineering and Reliablility/Mine Operators (MEMO) Conference, being held at Science North in Sudbury Sept. 18-21.
The four-day conference brought together stakeholders from the mining industry to learn about new products and research, as well as industry best practices.
In her study, Tetzlaff was able to measure a worker's brain activity through the use of a LifeBand by SmartCap — a band worn across a worker's forehead that detects specific brainwave frequencies related to various stages of alertness.
“They have a predictive capacity to it, where it's actually giving you warning indicators in advance of a micro-sleep taking place,” Tetzlaff explained.
“So you're getting real-time live data directly to the operator inside the cab of the truck. They've got direct communication with somebody in dispatch that can also support them and create these modifications and behavioural adaptations that can bring them back to a place of alertness.”
Seventeen workers — 15 men and two women ― agreed to be a part of the voluntary study. All were drivers of the Komatsu HD785-7, a highway haul truck with a capacity of 100 tons.
Data showed that, over a 20-day cycle — 10 day shifts, followed by 10 night shifts — fatigue for the operators peaked on day 10, marking the transition from day shift to night shift, an expected result, Tetzlaff said.
“Overall, though, our actual fatigue alarms that are occurring during that period were actually the same during days and nights,” she said.
The rate of fatigue alarms varied between participants, she noted. Some had no fatigue alarms at all, indicating a strong ability to manage their own fatigue, while others had several.
Three of the operators accounted for 79 per cent of the alarms in a given period, and they all worked as part of the same crew, an “interesting” note, Tetzlaff said.
The highest rates of fatigue occurred from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. and again from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“This is all this information that we can use to tailor the programming for those individuals and help coach them and dive a little bit deeper about what personal factors might be causing them to have those higher fatigue levels, or why those days of the week are going to be more of a concern,” Tetzlaff said.
The data also revealed that participants were more prone to fatigue when reaching certain sites along a truck's route, such as an idling area for dumping, or a meeting location where drivers were more sedentary for extended periods.
In some cases, these areas might just need a simple solution like better lighting to help drivers avoid fatigue, she added.
On average, operators wore the device for six to seven hours over the course of a 10-hour shift, Tetzlaff reported. Most said they did not feel as though the device was an added distraction, but rather a valuable tool to help them keep alert on the job.
“We asked them, ‘Are you willing to continue to wear this after the pilot period?’” she noted. “All of the operators agreed to it, so a really, really good buy-in.”
Since the completion of the study, Torex has expanded the project: another 55 truck operators started wearing the LifeBand this past spring.
Later this month, the project will expand again with another 103 workers added to the list of those participating, spanning operators of dozers, drills, graders, and haulage trucks.
By late 2023 and into 2024, Torex will move to a full surface extension, and eventually, Tetzlaff said, the company wants to make it a mandatory part of a worker's personal protective equipment.
However, she emphasized that no punitive measures will be taken against a worker who declines to wear the LifeBand.
For skeptical workers that remain hesitant, Torex is focused on providing more education and awareness around the technology and how it works.
That falls to the supervisors to say, “What can we do today to help you wear it more?” Tetzlaff said.
“So right now it's really a coaching behaviour change approach and not trying to be as forceful.”