An Entire Career Spent Underground

image 3In the early 1800s, the underground coal extraction process was very primitive and laborers were often subjected to extremely dangerous working conditions.

The public became aware of this phenomenon in 1838 after a freak accident took the lives of 26 children working in an undergound coal mine. In response to this tragedy, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Mines Act of 1842, which prohibited women and boys under 10 years of age from working in coal mines.

The new law resulted in huge labor shortages, so mining companies began using “Pit Ponies” in record numbers to augment their workforce.

A Pit Pony was a small breed of horse (≈ 3-4ft tall) that was used primarily in underground mines to pull tubs of coal and transport supplies for miners.  At their peak in 1913, there were approximately 70,000 pit ponies working below ground in the UK[1].

These horses worked year-round and lived underground virtually all of their working lives (i.e., decades) until retirement!  Since pit ponies belonged to the mining companies, they were highly valued capital and it was common practice for each pony to be handled by one and only one miner, as it was believed that this formed a good working relationship between miner and horse[2].

Fast-forward 100 years to 2014…

When comparing the events above to the mining industry today, there’s no doubt that technological advancements and public policy have significantly improved the mining industry; however, remnants of these past challenges are still present today.

Labor shortages are still negatively impacting mining firms even though the drivers are different.  Declining ore grades are forcing companies to dig deeper or expand to more remote regions, which inflates the safety risk and escalates costs.  And in the same manner that Pit Ponies were paired with one miner to ensure continuity and reduce variability, mining company’s today are looking for ways to stabilize their operations (i.e. people + equipment) and increase productivity.

Getting the most out of existing assets and resources is the new priority, and at GE, we believe the Industrial Internet is the next technological advancement that will enable industrial companies to capture critical efficiencies and uncover hidden performance potential.

For example, advancements in predictive analytics technologies are allowing mining companies to detect and diagnose impending problems before they happen. Proven mining solutions like those from GE can detect issues up to 10 weeks before other systems, and we’ve seen customers improve their asset availability anywhere from 1-15%. The boost in productivity through the use of the latest Industrial Internet-enabled software solutions can be profound.

In closing, no one knows for sure, but it is believed that the last surviving Pit Pony passed away in 2011 at the age of 40[3].  These unsung heroes may have lived their lives underground and in the shadows, but their contributions to the coal mining industry were illuminated on the surface and have thus impacted all of us in some capacity.

How well equipped are your operations to improve productivity in the face of unexpected turn-over, retirements, or skill shortages in the market?