|Accidents caused by operator fatigue.
Operator fatigue is one of the major primary contributors to mining accidents, thus continued efforts to adequately manage the condition is paramount in reducing injuries and fatalities in the mining sector.
Operator fatigue is a critical safety issue in the South African mining industry. In fact, a 2005 study by Anglo American identified operator fatigue as one of the primary causes of accidents and loss of life in its operations.
The risk of fatigue is inherent in any work time arrangement, but particularly in shift work. There are numerous reasons for this, with the disruption of the circadian rhythm being one of the major factors. The body has a built-in clock that works according to a light and darkness cycle. The cycle is optimally suited for sleeping at night when there is relatively no light, and being awake during the day when there is daylight.
A case in point: operators working the day shift underground where it is dark for example, often experience sleepiness. This is because their bodies interpret the diminished light as night time. Night time operators experience insomnia as daylight ‘tells’ the body to release chemicals that help keep the subject awake.
Other factors contributing to fatigue include emotional and stress concerns, general well-being and life choices.
The cumulative effect is that operators are prone to tiredness and experience on-the-job sleepiness or fatigue. Compounding the situation is the fact that mining work is physically demanding. In addition, mining operations are frequently associated with difficult working conditions such as restricted work spaces. Also, mining equipment is mostly designed for functionality without considering basic ergonomics principles such as the abilities and limitations of users.
While numerous studies have shown that shift worker fatigue cannot be eliminated, it can be managed however. In this regard, the Human factors group of the CSIR’s Centre for Mining Innovation (CMI) has been hard at work researching how fatigue can be better managed in the mining environment.
Schu Schutte, industrial physiologist and head of the Human factors division at the CMI says that continued efforts must be made in combating operator fatigue. He states that research has shown that the management of operator fatigue needs to be a major concern for organisations, but it also needs to be a major concern at an individual level.
“Ideally, a fatigue management programme should address the unique needs of the operation and it should be integrated into the normal operations of the organisation. Furthermore, active participation should be encouraged from all stakeholders,” he adds.
From research conducted on operator fatigue, the CMI has published guidelines on fatigue management strategies based on best practices for South African mines. The published guidelines have put forward key recommendations namely:
- The need for well-designed work schedules
- Sufficient rest days
- Structured breaks during shifts
- Sleep management
- Health screening and counselling
- Educational programmes
- Food and fluid intake
- Devices for measuring driver wakefulness
- Environmental stimulation