Rolling improvements reduce risk

Automation is helping make our rail hubs safer, thanks to team-driven innovation

Last updated: 18 March 2024


A proud Noongar Wilman man from Narrogin and Bunbury in Western Australia, Josh is a Wagon Maintenance Superintendent at our Seven Mile Railyard, the largest train hub in our Pilbara network. He’s been finding innovative ways to make our rail operations safer, by bringing his team’s ideas to life with new technology.

I’ve always loved fixing things.

I’m a boilermaker by trade, and I started with Rio Tinto 12 years ago as a boilermaker at Hope Downs 1. 

Seven Mile is the biggest train hub in the Pilbara, maintaining a fleet of more than 13,000 ore cars and servicing more than 5,000 wagons every year.

Finding better and safer ways to do what we do is something I love about my job.

I work with a diverse team of around 80 people. In a team this big, and with such a large remit, safety is a huge priority for us. So we’re always looking for ways to improve things, whether that’s through technology – with support from our amazing engineering team – or just thinking differently. We aren’t afraid to go at the big problems that may have previously been placed in the too-hard basket.

One way we’re removing line-of-fire and crush injury risks for our maintainers is using automation. We are currently working on a design for a Wheel Progression System. This will eliminate the need for our team members to roll each 1.5-tonne ore-car wheelset by hand. Currently, we roll around 40,000 wheelsets per year, the equivalent of 60,000 tonnes!

We’re also trialling a remote handbrake applicator that will remove our people from the impact zone when they’re shunting ore cars. Previously, shunt vehicle operators had to rely on verbal confirmation that maintainers were out of the line of fire when they were releasing coupler rods – the remote allows maintainers to enter the impact zone without the risk that the shunt vehicle may move unexpectedly.

I love that initiatives like this are tackling some of the risks in our line of work, which have been accepted for too long.

We do face some challenges when implementing change. Teams can be reluctant to change their processes and embrace new ways of doing things, especially if they feel that changes are being forced upon them, rather than with their best interests in mind. But we work hard to encourage new ideas and get them to be part of the change process from the very start.

Often, we forget our people ‘at the coalface’ are the best source of ideas for improvement because they have hands-on experience of what we can do better, every day. So many of our improvement projects come from the workshop floor. I’m constantly impressed by the team’s enthusiasm.

I think that’s a principle that applies from the smallest team to the whole company. I felt very morally conflicted after the Juukan Gorge disaster in 2020, and I think a lot of Indigenous employees felt the same way. But I’m excited to see how partnerships with Traditional Owner groups develop while we work towards a ‘Green Steel’ future. We have done a lot of good work to restore relationships and trust since then.

A great example is the recent agreement between Rio Tinto and Yindjibarndi Energy to work together on opportunities for renewable energy projects. I was stoked to hear the announcement. Involving Traditional Owners from the inception of these projects feels right – it helps create a sustainable future for both of our businesses, which in turn helps to better conserve the environment. As Indigenous people, this aligns with our values and is a step in the right direction to a more sustainable future, and long-lasting partnerships.

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