It's a photo of an airport hall in an airport somewhere in the world. The seats in the departure lounge are packed with FIFO mining personnel waiting to board their flight home / back to work. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might assume. Except that this is a photo taken during one of the most extraordinary global health crises of the modern era. The COVID-19 pandemic!
The photo was aired on social media, and prompted the very obvious question – are mining companies, or perhaps more pertinently mining personnel, taking CV-19 and the accompanying restrictions seriously?
The country and, even more significantly, the state in which the photo was taken, has closed its borders to all but returning nationals. This particular state has additionally closed its own borders to all but essential travel ie freight, emergency services, work etc. There are further travel restrictions in place within the state, including on non-essential travel between regions. Mining though remains one of the few 'essential' industries still permitted to operate and move personnel around reasonably freely, hence the airport lounge full of FIFO workers.
However, the same country has also implemented a 'social distancing' policy, which requires anyone in public to keep a mandatory 1.5 – 2 metres between themselves and other people, both out in the open and indoors. It's THIS particular policy that had those who saw the photo raising their eyebrows in alarm. For the people in the photo though it appeared to be 'business as usual'. There were no vacant seats between each person as would be the case if they were taking social distancing regulations seriously. No one was wearing a mask, gloves or any other visible type of PPE gear that would help reduce the spread of any nasties in such a confined space.
What ARE mining companies globally doing in this global health pandemic?
Globally, mining in some shape or form underpins many of the world's economies. With other industries facing shutdowns, lock downs, and reduced production, something has to keep the money coming into government coffers. In many cases, a very big portion of that 'something' is mining. Therefore it's probably fortunate for the global economy that major iron ore miners in particular currently say the virus hasn't made too much of an impact on their production levels. Does this mean they are ignoring health protocols or disobeying government directives?
It's also probably fortunate, although it does pose additional problems, that so many operational mine sites are located well off the beaten track in some pretty remote parts of the world. On the one hand, the remoteness can serve to keep mine workers away from virus hotspots so long as stringent bio-security precautions are implemented and then strictly adhered to. Likewise, restrictions on travel in and out of the sites can also help keep viruses out.
On the other hand, medical facilities are few and far between in these remote areas so dealing with a Covid-19 outbreak would create some significant, and likely deadly, challenges. Remote indigenous communities may also be at increased risk from infectious diseases brought in by mining activities.
Responses to the Coronavirus pandemic vary around the globe.
In some countries, mining companies are utilising experiences gained from previous viral outbreaks such as Ebola and SARS to help deal with the current situation. Other countries have suspended mining operations altogether. South Africa for one is currently in lockdown and miners have put their various operations in that country on care and maintenance for the duration whilst voicing their support for the government initiative.
International companies with operations in South Africa ie AngloGold Ashanti, Anglo American Platinum, Rio Tinto etc have all implemented similar measures. Whilst (at the time of writing) the current lockdown is only scheduled to last for 21 days from its implementation date of March 26th, there's every chance it will be extended depending on how the CV-19 situation is panning out globally and within South Africa at the end of those 3 weeks.
Elsewhere around the world, increasing restrictions on both domestic and international travel has made it difficult for mining companies to continue operating some of their projects. Sumitomo Corporation for example has made the decision to put their Ambatovy Nickel Project in Madagascar and Minera San Cristobal in Bolivia on hold for the duration of state-implemented curfews and public transport suspensions in those countries because these measures made it too difficult for employees to get to work.
Italy's national CV-19 lockdown caused the closure of mining and exploration projects in that country and the subsequent stand down of employees. Likewise, Anglo American had to demobilise some 10,000 construction employees at Qullaveco in Peru when the government implemented a 15-day quarantine period. In Mongolia tighter government restrictions in the wake of the first confirmed COVID-19 cases in that country caused Rio Tinto to suspend non-essential operations at Oyu Olgoi.
In Canada most provinces have declared mining to be an 'essential' activity.
Miners in Canada are trying to keep operations open where possible and most are implementing a range of bio-security measures including:
- increased cleaning and sanitising of facilities and equipment
- employee screening for CV-19
- staggering shift start and finish times, and lunch breaks
- implementing social distancing protocols
- having employees that can do so work remotely from home
- demobilising non-essential employees
- cancelling non-essential global travel
- cancelling non-essential meetings and group functions
- moving essential meetings and functions like shareholder meetings online or replacing them with web casts and conference calls
These measures aren't restricted to Canada either but are becoming increasingly commonplace wherever mining has been permitted to continue.
In Quebec however, whilst mining has been left on the 'essential' list, the government has specifically asked mining companies to reduce their activities. In response, many have opted to put their Quebec operations on care and maintenance, leaving just enough staff on site to maintain equipment and ensure environmental protection systems remain operational. Those companies that are opting to keep sites in production have put strict virus screening protocols in place and will be sending any employees with suspected Coronavirus symptoms home, or to medical facilities.
Companies operating projects in remote areas of Canada have also opted by and large to shut them down because of the health risks associated with travelling, and to reduce the risks to indigenous peoples living there. Medical services, supplies and equipment in these remote areas are typically scarce and would be totally unable to cope with an outbreak of CV-19.
Australia's mining industry has likewise been put on the 'essential' list, meaning most operations across the country will stay open.
However, Australia also has the largest numbers of FIFO workers and these people in particular pose a special set of circumstances as the Federal and State Governments tighten travel restrictions. Several states have closed their borders to all but essential travel and services or have strict 14-day quarantine regulations in place for those that do come in. FIFO mining personnel travelling to and from work in those states are currently exempt from this requirement. However, there are specific regulations in place around how they can travel. Companies that employ FIFO workers in Western Australia for example must use charter flights to transport them. In latest developments, they are also now required to wind down the use of interstate FIFO workers as hard border regulations come into force. This has led to the temporary relocation of interstate FIFO staff and their families to Perth or regional communities.
Other measures that are being put in place both in Australia and other countries where FIFO workers are employed include
- mandatory screening of all employees entering a site
- strict controls and protocols around public and non-essential access to sites
- restriction of non-personnel movement around sites to essential services ie logistics deliveries
- additional mandatory cleaning and sanitation services for shared facilities and high touch point objects / areas
- implementation of mandatory personal hygiene measures before and after using shared facilities ie buses, dining areas, recreational facilities
- additional social distancing protocols on site and on transport services to and from camp to site
- closure of recreational and social facilities in camp that would ordinarily attract large groups of people ie gyms, swimming pools, bars.
- provision of additional washing and hand sanitising facilities for employees
- increased emphasis on personal hygiene ie cough and sneeze hygiene
- temporarily extending rostered shifts so there are fewer rotations and thus less people travelling
- provision of on-call services should an employee need to return home due to sickness or family emergencies
- supply of additional resources to allow employees to keep in contact with family and friends at home, or obtain support during longer roster cycles
Head office employees are working from home where possible and all non-essential travel, particularly international travel, has been stopped. Team meetings and briefings are being held online via conferencing software. Companies are also working with local communities and authorities to facilitate and improve protocols around social distancing. On sites where there have been confirmed cases of CV-19, employees and contractors arriving on site are required to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Looking at the situation globally, what can we see emerging during the Coronavirus pandemic?
One of the most obvious is the trend towards remote working. Companies in many industries are getting employees to work from home where possible and one has to wonder – if it's proven that this arrangement can, does, and will work, will we see an increasing trend towards allowing employees to continue working from home? Whilst some companies already offer this option, many still prefer employees to front up to an office each day.
We've also probably seen an acceleration of tech intensity. What is tech intensity? It's a term Microsoft coined to describe the implementation of technology and subsequent utilisation of those technologies to develop in-house digital solutions. With many companies moving to online meetings, training via web casts, setting employees up to work remotely, and adopting other electronic and online solutions, has it forced slower adopters to utilise technology faster than they otherwise may have done?
Then there is automation. The mining industry is an acknowledged leader in the development of automated solutions and systems. It's also undoubtedly part of the reason why the world's biggest iron ore producer can state with some confidence that they haven't (yet) suffered much reduction in production because of the pandemic. They do after all own the world's biggest fleet of automated mining vehicles and the world's first automated rail system, all of which are operated from remote control centres many thousands of kilometres away. So long as those control centres are staffed, the equipment can continue to operate, unhindered by CD-19 or any other similar global health catastrophe. Could we therefore see an escalation in the adoption of automation on more mine sites around the world so that the industry is not crippled by future health pandemics?