Women have gradually become formal participants in the mining industry, which has resulted in their having to deal with various challenges, and although the industry has improved in its identifying and dealing with these issues, the biggest game changer is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
The first Mining Charter was among the first regulatory documents to encourage diversification in the workforce, including the industry’s commitment to create more opportunities for women.
South Africa has some of the deepest gold and platinum mines in the world, which have, historically, required labour-intensive and physically arduous work under challenging conditions.
“The physical strength and effort required for many underground jobs precluded many women from being able to effectively do them. Some of the most difficult jobs, such as rock-drill operators, may also pose physiological risks to women,” explains mining industry employers’ organisation Minerals Council South Africa senior executive Sietse van der Woude.
To address such challenges, industrywide strategies and commitments were implemented to assist in advancing women in mining. The strategies included a focus on young people, making the industry more attractive to women and transforming workplaces to accommodate women.
Further, an unforeseen effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is it is accelerating the application of technologies that can potentially level the playing field, he says.
The pandemic exposed the structural inadequacies of the global economic, healthcare and corporate systems. It brought attention to the critical need to transition to a greener, more inclusive recovery.
“It forced a rethink, a redirection of attention and, in so doing, provided a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to implement change.”
The pandemic has encouraged new ways of working, new technologies and new approaches to addressing challenges as they arise. Consequently, the 4IR, characterised by increased automation and digitalisation, is being advanced as governments, businesses, educational institutions and individuals realise the need to rapidly adapt to meet new challenges.
Covid-19 has also forced countries to redirect their attention to preserving lives and long-term livelihoods. Reviewing policy reforms can result in less inequality and improved social mobility. The consequences of the pandemic have prompted countries to seek ways of renewing their economies, adds Van der Woude.
4IR Research and Development
The rapid adoption of 4IR is increasingly creating opportunities for women in mining, as the physical strength requirements historically essential for underground mining are no longer a natural barrier to entry for a more diverse workforce.
Research, development and innovation have led to a review of the ergonomics of rock drills to create lighter drills that can be operated by almost anyone using a remote computer.
“As soon as we ‘dephysicalise’ work, we drive gender equality,” he says.
Remotely operated and autonomous vehicles have also altered the mining landscape. For example, diversified miner Anglo American subsidiary Kumba Iron Ore has what is believed to be South Africa’s only all-female drilling crew – a job historically reserved for men, owing to the physical strength and stamina required.
Moreover, next-generation exploration rigs are fully remote-controlled, which enable operators to ‘drill’ remotely while in an air-conditioned control room.
“As South Africa looks to push ahead with plans to renew and accelerate growth, we cannot deny that growth and competitiveness are interdependent. “Mining is critical to South Africa’s growth and its competitiveness.”
However, for mining to play a role in post-Covid economic recovery, key issues that undermine its potential have to be addressed.
Research undertaken for business association Business South Africa last year cited the three main areas in which South African can improve its competitiveness through mechanisation and digitalisation, specifically through changing the relationship between the mining industry and mining data.
The the research found that the areas that must fundamentally change are the way that new data is created, the methods for old and new data analyses, and the communication of that data to decision-makers.
The 4IR provides this opportunity through technologies, such as remote sensing and the Internet of Things (IoT), which allow for the creation of new kinds of data at a significantly lower cost than the traditional and more manual processes.
“For example, using drones or satellites for exploration, or embedded IoT devices inside mining equipment, can provide real-time use insights,” adds Van der Woude.
The acceleration of industrywide change has gained momentum and will continue well beyond the pandemic, he says. The 4IR is a key enabler of modern, mining, which, in turn, is an integral part of how people can build a socially just world that keeps within its ecological limits, he concludes.