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Mining the Benefits of RFID

The mining and energy industries face numerous challenges, many stemming from the dangerous work that's done in harsh terrain. RFID could bring several benefits at once, including protecting workers and the environment, tracking expensive assets and boosting productivity.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Apr 01, 2006—Each night at midnight, the Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) mine in Malmberget, Sweden, one of the largest iron ore exporters in the European Union, starts setting off explosives so that workers can mine new areas in the morning. Until recently, the location of mine workers was tracked manually, so managers would know if all workers were evacuated before blasting began.

Each miner was required to move a tag with his name on it from one side of a board posted at the mine entrance to the other. But LKAB found the system unreliable, because workers kept forgetting to add or remove their names when they entered or exited the mine.

It is unlikely that current RFID technology can be used to prevent mining accidents.
Two years ago, LKAB started testing an RFID access control system from Wtek, a Norwegian technology company. Miners were given an active (battery-powered) RFID tag to wear in a jacket pocket. RFID interrogators were set up at the mine entrance to allow the reading of 20 to 30 tags at a time as busloads of workers changed shifts.

To let managers know where workers were in the event of an emergency, eight interrogators were stationed throughout the mine, dividing the various levels of the mine, which is 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) deep, into different zones. The pilot was so successful in providing LKAB managers with a real-time accounting of workers that it was fully deployed.

Sweden is among several countries, including Austria and Norway, that have raised safety standards to protect workers in the hazardous mining industry. As a result, a growing number of mining companies in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia are using RFID to track miners and ensure they carry safety equipment. Most mining companies in the United States are still tracking workers by means of manual systems, either time clocks or tag systems similar to the one LKAB used before deploying RFID.

Worker safety also is an issue in oil and gas production, and energy companies are looking to use RFID to comply with government regulations. But the energy industry, which has a history of deploying information technology to streamline processes, is focused on using RFID to track expensive machinery and hazardous substances, reduce maintenance costs and improve efficiency in production of petroleum products and natural gas. The mining industry is exploring the use of RFID to track assets and improve efficiency but at a slower pace, in part because mines operate with a much lower margin and have to find more justification for the expense of RFID.
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