Iron ore producer LKAB and Austrian-based Identec Solutions recently marked a decade of working together in partnership with its safety assistance system, Crew Companion, that has enabled LKAB to monitor its underground workforces at three mines in North Sweden constantly and in real-time.
Since the start of mining operations in 1890, LKAB has mined more than two billion tonnes in all of its sites in Kiruna, Malmberget and Svappavaara. Their workforce of more than 4,500 employees in 12 countries enabled the state-owned company to generate a turnover of SEK 34 billion and to produce 27 million tons of iron in 2020. All three sites are monitored by Crew Companion.
Crew Companion, an RFID-transponder based system that reads individual tag signals and displays them on a monitor in the control room, is a zone-based solution that aggregates mines in zones rather than individual positions. It allows immediate knowledge of the whereabout and identity of personnel within the mine.
The current life expectancy of the Kiruna iron ore reserves at level 1365 is expected to be 2046. After significant exploration efforts in the last years, the resources have increased from about 700 tonnes to more than 800 million tonnes.
Additionally, to the iron ore, the so-called waste is valuable enough to be “recycled” for other minerals like phosphate or rare earth metals.
“As the principal driver of demand for rare earth metals is the green transition, increased demand for powerful permanent magnets used in electric vehicles and wind-power turbines followed” Identec said.
“They require, for example, praseodymium and neodymium. These, together with dysprosium, are expected to constitute the most valuable rare earth elements for LKAB, which can become a significant supplier of critical minerals for agriculture and green technology in Europe.”
In response to tight Swedish safety standards, LKAB implemented various measures to further increase workplace safety. Many previously performed tasks in underground machines are now remotely controlled by operators at a safe distance. The blasted rock is excavated remotely and moved to be collected in shafts for further transportation by automated trains.
Eventually, the safety efforts have yielded results: from 100 accidents per million work hours in 1980 down to 6.8 accidents in 2019.
“In general, Crew Companion…allows the operators to oversee personnel in all mine areas. Before a blast, which is a regular practice in all mines, personnel will move out into safety zones,” Identec officials said.
“Everyone remains away for the time hazardous gases and dust are ventilated. Miners return as soon as it is declared safe to finish their work. Crew Companion delivers the data of the miners’ whereabouts.”
For LKAB, the company added, it was always the highest priority to know where miners were in the giant underground installation to ensure their safety.
“A blast won’t happen if a miner is unreported or hers or his whereabouts are not visible. This causes a delay in production and creates costs of stopped supply. The threat of injured or missing staff and the loss of profit led LKAB to look for a suitable and 100% reliable solution to cover their monitoring needs.
“The daily shift change with several hundred people moving in and out of the mine in busses at 50 km/h speed is a challenge but reliably managed by Crew Companion. No busses have to stop, nobody has to get out and sweep their card manually, avoiding long queues at the entrance points.”
The pair of companies are constantly upgrading the system and plan further enhancements as the mine in Kiruna may soon decide about constructing a new, deeper main level in the next few years.
LKAB is, additionally, planning to be a big part of the Swedish carbon neutrality roadmap for 2050, as the iron and steel industry accounts for a quarter of the total industry’s global carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, steel demand is expected to increase by 50% by 2050.
“For LKAB, the challenging task is to produce iron ore responsibly and innovatively. The answer is to be sustainable in every process. From an environmental point of view, LKAB seeks to become a carbon-free mining facility through changing the processing of iron ore and re-inventing the final product. At LKAB, mining operations will become carbon-free by 2035 and iron production by 2045,” the company said.
“For LKAB, it is essential to foster social responsibility – expressed in diversity and a safe work environment as an employer. Relying on Crew Companion for ten years is a signal for the future: a safe place for all miners with a reliable solution.”