Keeping mining operations Covid-19-free is crucial because all mine personnel return to different communities, which can extend the spread of the infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 over long distances, says global design firm c global mining business line leader Jon Treen.
“Several measures, such as physical distancing, temperature monitoring and, of course, additional cleaning, have been put in place.”
He explains that key aspects of physical distancing implemented by mines are staggered shifts, the separation of passengers in personnel carriers and using dividers in confined spaces, such as cages, with many companies also requiring individuals to face opposite directions to reduce potential exposure.
“These measures are necessary in society in general and are especially important in mining where we have fly-in, fly-out operations,” states Treen.
He says it is difficult to determine if these measures are effective, as there is no data available on what the results would be without these measures being implemented.
Most of these measures can be applied to the African mining industry, says Treen, noting that the monitoring of mineworkers’ health on arrival is quick and effective.
“As mines in Africa are significantly deep and involve long travel times in cages and vehicles, physical distancing measures are key. “However, every mine is different and, therefore, whether the measures are transferable depends on the orebody and the infrastructure that is in place.”
Treen says the best opportunity to tailor these measures to the culture that exists in the African mining industry is to share ideas, actions and lessons learned so that local mine leaders and health professionals can implement the measures best suited to the existing mine culture.
The mining industry has always been willing to share knowledge regarding safety, he states, adding that the current challenge is a greater demonstration of the industry’s caring attitude.
The key to making these measures part of company cultures is by demonstrating that they benefit employees and other stakeholders such as families and communities.
“The precautions being undertaken may create incremental inefficiencies in employees’ daily routines, but understanding the negative implications needs to be a priority. It is also important that companies and the industry realise that there must be some flexibility, as we are still learning about Covid-19, and this may require us to pivot and adopt new procedures.”
The mining industry has done a good job to continue to operate and deliver metals, contributing to global economic and supply chain stability, Treen tells Mining Weekly.
“The biggest challenge of maintaining production while ensuring physical distancing in the mining sector is to ensure that you are not introducing additional risk into the operations.”
He notes that a proper risk assessment must be done with respect to the changes being made, while supervisors and the workforce must analyse the new risks and new controls that should be put in place to maintain safe production as procedures are changed or more practices are introduced.
“The most successful way of overcoming these challenges is through focused communication. “As we have more physical distancing or individuals working in different locations, it is important that operations focus on communicating early and often.”
In addition to communicating normal expectations, the new expectations, procedures and processes must also be communicated.
Treen says listening and providing an opportunity for others to express concerns and ideas that can improve the situation are equally important.
Meanwhile, with the Covid-19 outbreak highlighting the benefit of mechanisation in reducing the human element in mining production to avoid disruptions in output, Treen comments that mechanisation will continue regardless of the disease.
“As mechanisation advances, using prevention through design – intentional design that removes safety risks – will be key. The more designs are put in place to reduce and remove individuals from hazards, the closer we will get to realising zero harm.”
Mechanisation and the consequent loss of mining jobs is a concern not only in Africa but also globally.
“Yet, the demand for metals and minerals continue to grow while supply continues to become more challenging,” explains Treen.
Consequently, mechanisation does not threaten job security, a lack of mechanisation threatens the sustainability of the industry.
Treen says mechanisation can allow for safe mineral extraction, extend the life of existing mines and help mines that are otherwise unprofitable.
“Therefore, mechanisation should be an opportunity for the industry to develop more mines, which equates to more jobs.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about many challenges, yet the current operating climate does present lessons that can advance work practices to reduce health and safety risks to workers, advances Treen.
Mining provides the supplies for building materials and medical equipment – everything that will help society emerge from the current crisis, he emphasises.
“As an industry, we need to continually improve how we operate and the industry must continue to help society understand that mined minerals and materials are critical to all aspects of our lives.”