The superlatives trip off the tongue for both the mine and the region in which it sits. One of the largest Archean greenstone belts on Earth. One of the largest base metal deposits in world. The mine itself? The world’s deepest base metal mine, plunging to almost 3,000 meters. “There are deeper mines in South Africa,” says Mine Manager Tom Semadeni, “but they start much higher above sea level, making Kidd Mine near Timmins, Ontario “the closest accessible point to the very centre of the Earth.” But operating so far underground also “poses all kinds of technical challenges.
“The more significant ones are just the logistics of getting people and materials to work. It takes a long time to get down there.”
Deep mine, deep pockets…
Back in 2004, mine owner Glencore was told adding 3.4 million tonnes of copper/ zinc ore to its mine plan meant it would have to dig deep, spending $120 million to develop three additional production levels. By December 2011, that dollar number was closer to $140 million.
“We had to deepen the ramp, establish infrastructure like dewatering, back filling and electrical systems,” Semadeni says. Added to the challenge of installing a location pocket at the 2,900 meter level, he says, were increases in atmospheric pressure which elevate air temperatures and place additional loads on ventilation systems.
Now, with expanded ventilation and backfill systems to the new sections of the mine up and running, Glencore turns its attention to upgrading some of its underground loaders. Working with Sandvik, Glencore has automated two of its 16 loaders so that they no longer require equipment operators. Instead, a video feed enables an operator at the mine’s surface to view the bucket underground and fill it to capacity using remote controls. Once released, it wends its way through the tunnel’s labyrinth until it reaches the dump point where the operator releases the load.
“It then travels automatically all the way back to the loading point where the operator fills and releases the bucket again. To my knowledge, we’re the first mine in North America to do this.”
No more underground operators means no more delays getting staff down to the equipment, resulting in “a big productivity improvement,” Semadeni adds. While it’s “still early days” (Sandvik’s LH514 AutoMine Lite loading system has only been at work a few months) Semadeni estimates it has achieved a peak of 30 per cent improvement over more conventional underground loaders.
The first rule of thumb: accidents don’t just happen…
Having one less man underground makes Kidd not only more productive, but safer. That dovetails with yet another superlative Canada’s safest metal mine.
Last September Glencore grabbed an award from Workplace Safety North. That award sits nicely alongside the John T. Ryan national safety trophy which Kidd Mine won in early 2013 (3.3 million work hours without a lost-time incident) and the award it won in 2008 for the best safety record at an eligible Ontario metal mine.
Semadeni says there’s nothing accidental about any of this; Glencore is merely continuing a tradition of safety he believes has characterized Canada’s mining companies at home and abroad, driven in part by the expectations of ordinary Canadians. Those same expectations drive his staff. “I think that’s what’s allowed us to be successful at the mine here…We’ve had a lot of employee involvement in an environment of very high expectations.” As a result, the frequency of accidents at Kidd Mine “is about a tenth of what it was, say, seven years ago.”
Semadeni credits “many, many things” for that improvement. For years Kidd Mine has used the Neil George, Five-Point Safety System focused on training the workforce to recognize risks and hazards and putting controls in place to address them. In 2004 the company and its union also introduced the “zero acceptance program.” Simply put, workers and management agreed no one would continue working if substandard conditions existed at the mine site. Within four years its modified work injury frequency stood at an award-winning 0.54 per 200,000 work hours.
Key to mine safety, says Semadeni, is avoiding finger pointing among staff. Instead, staff are encouraged to begin each new shift by asking what happened on the previous shift. Did everything go smoothly and safely? If so, fantastic. Conversely were there things that we might need to change? The Positive Attitude Safety System (PASS) reinforces the zero acceptance program at Kidd Mine by ensuring a healthy discussion and self-evaluation of safety preparedness at all levels, including supervisors, says Semadeni.
Semadeni maintains mining is no different than any other heavy industry. “We have electricity, we have compressed air, we have people working at height and people interacting with large machinery. We have to make sure people understand the hazards associated with those types of activities.” But safety can’t be left solely to individual judgment, he asserts. You also require a hierarchy of controls to help you decide when it’s best to eliminate rather than merely minimize a hazard. Eliminating the operator on the automated scoop loader is a good example of that.
“The least effective control is administrative where you just write a procedure to say, “Okay you’re going to wear really thick gloves or a shield because you’re going to be peppered by something and we can’t figure out a way to stop it.”
Any risk you can’t eliminate, says Semadeni, you manage. “We put five cameras on our big equipment, for example, so that the operator can see all around the equipment.” Glencore also creates “no-go zones” prohibiting workers from entering an area where large equipment is operating. But danger comes in smaller packages, too, Semadeni points out. “On our smaller pieces of equipment we put very powerful strobe lights to make sure that they’re visible.
“We approach it as a science. We say safety is a process in which there is a cause and effect relationship. You make a list of all the scenarios in which a person could get hurt and then you ask ‘Do we need a special procedure, a tool to stop that from happening?”
Rule two: It’s not all about the rules…
The job doesn’t end there. You also have to monitor the safety processes to determine how effective they are. Glencore puts a lot of effort into what it calls “job spot or task observations” where supervisors and staff monitor work practices on the job and make recommendations on ways to lower risk. Does being assessed in this way make staff unduly self-conscious or defensive? It needn’t, says Semadeni, if everyone understands safety is a value.
“We shouldn’t be following the rules because the company wants them to… people should be following the rules and procedures because they make sense.”
Underpinning work safety culture is a basic understanding that no-one is immune to danger, that we’re all only human. We get tired. We get frustrated. We rush when we should take our time. Worse we become complacent. Here, building self-awareness is key, says Semadeni.
To that end, Glencore has adopted a formal program called SafeStart which helps staff understand how their state of mind can contribute to them getting hurt. “And then we give them tools to combat that. So it’s become a very personal thing.”
Most mine managers understand that there’s a productivity spin-off from safety controls. Safety control “means you’re working in a more controlled environment. There are fewer surprises and fewer disruptions to production.” Tom Semadeni says that will be even more apparent as industry moves forward, but the increased benefits of safer controls will only occur by chipping away at the persistent notion that “accidents sometimes just happen.” They don’t.
“With a little bit of knowledge, people understand there is a cause and effect relationship. That there’s no such thing as an accident. Things happen for a reason. Something goes wrong and as a result someone is injured or worse.”
Equally important, Semadeni adds, is treating staff like adults and engendering a feeling of pride and engagement on site. It’s the sense that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, in particular part of the surrounding community. “It’s important that we’re in good standing with community and feel proud to wear the brand of Kidd operations out in the community.” Semadeni likens it to being on a hockey team. People like being winners. Employees at Kidd operations see themselves as members of a winning team and celebrate that fact.
But part of being a winner is sharing your successes. People in the community surrounding Kidd operations take enormous satisfaction knowing there is “a centre of excellence in their midst. It helps validate each person who works here, says Semadeni.
“So when they’re at the arena or Tim Horton’s and the topic comes up about safety, something you hear a lot about on the radio, it’s important to me that people locally know this mine is top notch. It’s important for our employee to know that and the people around them as well.”