New systems improve safety for workers

For several decades, Liu Chunling, 58, spent her days waiting for family members to return home safely from work in coal mines.

If they were late arriving, she feared they had been involved in accidents.

The mining industry has long put food on her family’s table in Zaozhuang, Shandong province.

For many years, Liu worked at a coal preparation plant. Her father, now 88, was a miner, as was her husband before he retired, while her son has worked underground at a mine for the past 16 years.

“I am so relieved and grateful that my father and husband went through tough times but retired safely, although both of them now have rheumatism and my father lost two toes in an accident, which has left him unsteady on his feet,” Liu said.

Meng Zhan, who works at the Gaozhuang Mine in Jining, Shandong province, demonstrates how facilities at the coalface are used. [ZHAO RUIXUE / CHINA DAILY]

However, she no longer worries about the safety of her son, Meng Zhan, 38, after he showed her the smart facilities now being used at the coalface.

Meng works at the Gaozhuang Mine in Jining, which is owned by Zaozhuang Mine Group Co, part of the Shandong Energy Group. The company is the second-largest coal production conglomerate in China in terms of annual production.

Meng said: “When our mine was equipped with the smart system last year, I made a video call to show my parents how the coal was collected and transported to the surface with automated machinery. They were so impressed.

“They brought my grandpa to watch the call. They could not believe that the jobs previously done underground by many workers can now be carried out by machines.”

The Gaozhuang Mine was equipped with smart machinery last year, and nationwide, the mining industry is adopting technologies, including remote control systems, real-time monitoring and data analysis, to protect workers and increase production capacity.

During a visit to Shandong in September, State Councilor Wang Yong said China aims to install automated machinery at more than 1,000 coalfaces by the end of 2022.

As of August, 61 of Shandong’s 102 coal mines had started constructing smart collieries, with such technology installed at 85 coalfaces, with work in progress at a further 56.

In May, Shanxi province, which is also a mining hub, released a blueprint aimed at realizing smart operations at all its mines by 2030.

Automated machinery in operation at the Baodian Coal Mine in Jining, Shandong. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Yu Xiuzhong, deputy head of the Shandong Administration of Energy, said, “Miners’ safety is our top concern in building smart mines.”

Working underground comes with risks, including explosions, fires, flooding and dangerous concentrations of toxic gases. Smart mining reduces the number of employees required underground and frees them from dangerous work.

Yu said, “The major risks in Shandong’s mines are fire, flooding and rock burst.”

A total of 41 mines in the ­province are at risk from rock burst — violent expulsions of rock from the walls of a mine opening. These expulsions are caused by heavy pressure on brittle rocks in deep mines where work has left the rocks without support on one side.

In October 2018, an accident at a mine in Heze, Shandong, killed 21 workers. The incident was later found to have been caused by rock burst.

The tragedy led to the widespread adoption of automated machinery in mines throughout the province.

Yu said, “There are unmanned operations in many areas of a smart mine, so the number of people working underground is reduced.”

According to the Shandong Administration of Energy, all pits in the province at risk from rock burst have been turned into smart mines, cutting the number of workers needed at a drilling site to a maximum of 16. Previously, more than 30 were required.

The automated systems send warnings when there are 16 workers at a site and more attempt to enter it.


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