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Interdisciplinary Mining Safety Program Will Bring New Perspectives to Underground Hazards

Sophia Friesen

An educational collaboration between the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (RMCOEH) and the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Utah will bring new perspectives to tackle tough problems in mining safety.
Mining technology in the United States has advanced immeasurably from minecarts and “jack-legs” (very large jackhammers), but working in or around mines still presents unique and serious hazards, says W. Pratt Rogers, PhD, associate professor in mining engineering. He describes the dangers of mining labor in terms of “high-energy zones”: regions where large and powerful machinery or heavy objects have the potential to exert massive amounts of force. “If you make one snap decision wrong in a high-energy zone, you can lose a leg, or your life,” he says. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still fatalities. There are still massive injuries.”

Disrupting Tunnel Vision

Addressing these hazards will take the best minds from across a wide variety of disciplines. One of the biggest strengths of the program, Rogers says, is that it will tap into that variety. Classes in the Mining Safety program will be taught by faculty members from the Department of Mining Engineering. But unlike standard engineering courses, these will be geared toward a broad spectrum of students within RMCOEH, with backgrounds ranging from industrial hygiene and emergency management to psychology and public health. 
Charles Kocsis, PhD, chair of the Department of Mining Engineering and director of the Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence, says that the collaboration will be a new development for the department. “We’re very excited, because it’s the first time that mining engineering steps out of the box.” The program is expected to begin accepting students in March 2024.
By connecting people with differing perspectives, the program aims to arrive at new solutions for recalcitrant safety problems. Like in any discipline, if experts only collaborate with others who share a similar background, ideas about what’s possible can become set in stone. “You can get a lot of tunnel vision in these disciplines,” Rogers says. “They’re conservative in terms of risk-taking and thinking outside the box. Bringing people in from outside disrupts that cycle and makes people think about how to do things differently.”

Panel of three video-game-like graphics of mining equipment in tunnels. In the center panel, the surroundings are dark and the equipment is on fire.
Virtual reality simulations of mining emergencies, like those Kocsis' team is developing, have the potential to help train people from a wide variety of disciplines.

New Tech Brings New Perspectives

But interdisciplinarity also introduces unique challenges, and newcomers to the field will have a lot to learn. “The underground environment is a completely different environment, a different world,” Rogers says. Confined spaces, airborne contaminants, and limited visibility combine into an experience that can be difficult to prepare trainees for. “When people are underground and there is an emergency such as an underground fire, work areas fill up with smoke immediately, within five to ten minutes,” Kocsis says, “and when you cannot see, panic starts to take over.”
Both Kocsis and Rogers are working to develop technological solutions to mining safety issues, including virtual reality simulations that train participants to respond to underground emergencies. Unlike traditional safety trainings, “it’s very interactive,” Kocsis says. “You are immersed into this VR and you need 100% attention.” Kocsis adds that his research team is also working to develop other advanced technologies intended to improve safety and health at mines in Utah and worldwide, including smart glasses designed to guide mine workers during an emergency and innovative monitoring devices to reduce the risk of heatstroke underground.
Virtual reality tools will be especially useful for the Mining Safety program, Rogers says, because they can convey the hazards of mining to people from a wide variety of disciplines. “With VR, you can simulate some of that environment to prepare people with different backgrounds to participate in there.”
Bringing together a broad spectrum of experts will help participants in the program design better approaches to mining safety, Rogers says. “This is the true value of diversity in general. You get a lot of different perspectives looking at the problem, and you get closer to the truth.”