The NSW Resources Regulator recently recommended a number of important engineering and technology measures to make autonomous vehicles safer following an investigation into a heavy vehicle collision involving automated machinery at Wilpinjong coal mine near Mudgee.
The investigation was undertaken in conjunction with mine operators, equipment manufacturers and worker representatives and identified several safety improvements.
A bulldozer operating in semi-autonomous mode collided with an excavator during operations at the mine, shunting the excavator and leaving the driver trapped, however, the excavator driver was rescued and was not injured.
The incident was of particular interest as the trialing and use of autonomous and remote-controlled equipment is increasing in mines throughout NSW, said Resources Regulator Chief Inspector of Mines Garvin Burns.
“As a result, an investigation into the cause was immediately launched to provide a better understanding of the contributing factors and to allow us to quickly pass on lessons learned to industry.”
The investigation identified a number of contributing factors to the incident including poor sight lines and a breakdown in communications.
“However, of even more importance, the investigation and subsequent actions by the operator identified a number of key engineering and technology measures that have since been implemented to prevent reoccurrence,” said Burns.
“These include the installation of a proximity awareness and autonomous stop system on all machinery and portable units for staff working in the area, installation of an aerial camera and increased separation between machinery.
“Any mine operator using or considering the use of autonomous machinery should review the full investigation report to see if any of the lessons can be applied to their operations,” Burns said.
A report on the outcomes of the investigation noted that there are potential safety and commercial benefits to using autonomous equipment.
Autonomous operation can significantly minimise risks to machine operators by removing them from the location of mining activities, it said.
The segregation of workers from autonomous operations is generally the primary risk control measure, however all autonomous equipment requires some form of human interaction.
Autonomous control system design and implementation, especially around human interaction, is critical and if it is not adequately managed, can also impact health and safety in the workplace.
The report also said that risk assessments must consider all reasonably foreseeable risks. In assessing risk, existing controls are often assumed to be adequate if an incident is not known to have previously occurred.
Work, health and safety legislation stipulates that risks are to be managed, so far as is reasonably practicable, and the effectiveness of risk controls are to be reviewed after a high potential incident occurs.
“These requirements compel a mine operator to challenge the adequacy of control measures,” said the report.
“Put simply, instead of asking why an additional control should be implemented, this should be a question of ‘why not?’.
The implementation of soft procedural controls in lieu of hard barriers or high engineering level controls should always be questioned where alternatives are known to exist.
“Advances in technology should provide an opportunity to improve existing control measures,” the report said.
“Just because a control may not have been readily available at the time of installation, does not mean that people conducting business or undertaking (PCBUs) should not provide consideration to new control measures, once improvements become available.”