Glyn Jones highlights how to ensure employee safety during tunnel boring operations

As the populace grows, public transport becomes more cluttered and road networks experience more congestion. The ever-increasing number of people requiring access to different kinds of transport has been and remains a focal point within society, and as demand grows, more and more solutions are needed to maintain passenger satisfaction. As a result, new transportation networks need to be made as quickly as possible.

However, all too often, the consideration of the health and safety of workers is overshadowed by the need to meet requirements, but despite the rush, it’s important to place the wellbeing of the taskforce as the first and foremost concern, both in the sense of creating safe networks for drivers and passengers, and when it comes to the safety of operators during the project.

Crossrail – known as the Elizabeth line – is one of these infrastructure developments. Construction began on Crossrail – Europe’s largest infrastructure project –back in 2009 and it is due to open in 2018. It is thought Crossrail will improve London’s rail capacity by ten per cent and it has been designed to ease congestion, providing a new railway for London and the south east, providing easier, quicker and more direct travel opportunities across the capital.

The construction of this project has been an immense challenge, and for nearly ten years, eight 7.1-metre (23-foot) diameter tunnel-boring machines (TBM) have operated 24/7, drilling holes beneath the surface at a rate of 100 metres a week – a small distance for such massive machines – and operated by a team of 20 people.

Tunnel-boring machines operating mostly day and night for this long however, requires comprehensive safety mechanisms and, while Crossrail represents the highest of safety standards in its tunnel-boring operation, some operations around the world have not. So, what can mining and tunnelling operations around the world do to ensure their operatives and TBM machines are safe throughout activities and long-term mining projects?

Machine monitoring to ensure efficiency and safety
Protecting the TBM and personnel during the length of any mining project is essential and better technology means monitoring the efficiency of machinery and flagging potential issues before they escalate is becoming much easier.

Comprehensive, accurate and real-time safety and condition monitoring improves the safety of workers by ensuring machinery is operating at maximum efficiency and protects against the prospect of catastrophic failure by alerting of machine problems as soon as possible.

In doing so, workers are able to track the conditions and functionality of machinery in real time, further preventing any unexpected downtime and incurred costs to replace damaged equipment.

In addition, protecting equipment and ensuring it is working efficiently at all times will help to streamline tunnelling and mining projects, and ensure that project planning delivery times are maintained as much as possible, and help projects to progress as quickly, and safely as possible – a benefit to both the company and the workforce.

Adapting to changing risks
The type and severity of health and safety risks associated with tunnelling projects inevitably change during each stage of the development, and in reaction to any unforeseen issues. The scale and complexity of mining or tunnelling projects presents consistent risks which need to be monitored and tackled, while the work exposure hours of those working on the project also needs to be dealt with.

Accurate and real-time data analysis, displaying information to local or remote SCADA systems can help to ensure that safety is always at the forefront of any project, while this information can also be used to predict any safety concerns that could arise by monitoring the changing environment.

For example, ground loss and surface settlements due to tunnelling can cause distress to surface structures like splitting stone work, fracturing foundations and potential risk to long term structural degrading.

Again, this is where monitoring systems with real time data and environment evaluation capabilities can help to alert operatives to potential problems and ensure the safety of workers.

The use of real time data and monitoring solutions allows workers to predict areas within the construction site that could become a problem or require work to keep them safe, enabling upgrades or improvements to be made before the areas become unsafe and removing the possibility of unplanned downtime.

It also helps to ensure that equipment continues to operate at optimal levels, reducing the risk that machinery will break down and potentially cause a safety problem and ensure maximum efficiency at all times. Ultimately, increasingly advanced technology is constantly improving the safety of mining and tunnelling operations, both for workers and future road users or rail passengers.

The development in technology is also increasing confidence in the delivery of project despite the increasing need for better transport links across the country potentially meaning that tunnelling projects could become more common heading into the future. By making best use of the latest technology, tunnelling and mining operations can become much safer while vastly improving efficiency at the same time.

Glyn Jones is Group CEO of Trolex. Trolex Ltd is a global supplier of gas and dust detection, connector solutions and safety and infotainment systems to the mining, industrial and transportation sectors. Its products are deployed in over 100 countries by some of the world’s leading corporations to protect their people and assets, maximise efficiency and improve the experience of workers and passengers. It offers the latest in wireless gas and dust detection technology, onboard Wifi and Ex d connectors and provide fully engineered solutions to meet the diverse needs of customers.