Since the middle of March, COVID-19 has forced mining companies all over the world to make hard decisions about their operations. Companies, governments, and communities have weighed the risk of mining activity contributing to the spread of the virus against the economic and social impacts of suspending operations.
Several operations around the world were placed on care and maintenance, because the risk of spreading the virus was deemed greater than the impacts of suspension. These operations focused on limiting activities that require gathering or movement of people. This included both open pit and underground mining, processing (milling, leaching, etc.) and the transportation of goods and services. In March, Voisey’s Bay in Labrador ramped down after community leaders expressed concern about the impact of employees travelling to the remote area. Voisey’s Bay is accessible only by air and almost half of the 800 employees are from Inuit and Innu communities in Labrador. By April, Vale, the operator, announced it would extend the care and maintenance period for up to three months. A Vale spokesman said the company does not want to play a part in introducing the novel coronavirus to Labrador, where Innu and Inuit communities already face serious health and social challenges: “We felt this was drastic action we needed to take with people at the forefront,” the spokeman told CBC in March. The Nunatsiavut government issued a statement that commended Vale for its decision “in light of concerns being expressed by beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement with the large numbers of workers from other parts of Canada flying to and from the mine site.”
Other sites have maintained operations because the company in collaboration with government and community leaders believe they can manage the spread of the virus and the economic and social impact of suspending operations would present greater risks to all stakeholders. For example, the Tahltan Nation and Newcrest Mining decided together to keep the Red Chris mine in British Columbia operational. Early on, the community and company made changes to the roster and implemented health screening measures on site. Other sites that have decided not to suspend operations have made changes based on community input, such as Diavik and Gahcho Kué in the Northwest Territories. Both sites continue to operate, but employees from local Indigenous communities were sent home on leave.
These examples illustrate the many factors that influenced the initial response to COVID-19. As we navigate through a COVID-19 world where risks to workers and communities still remain high, these factors must play a central role in our decisions related to mining activity. A community health and safety risk assessment provides companies, community leaders, and governments with a process to make informed decisions to limit both the spread of COVID-19 and the social impacts of suspending operations. A community health and safety risk assessment includes three main steps.
1. Identify the potential risks to community health and safety.
The most obvious risk is that employees and contractors spread COVID-19 in the community. This could have significant impacts on mining affected communities, especially, for those with a higher rate of pre-existing conditions or where the health care systems are ill-equipped to respond to a pandemic. However, the controls to manage this risk (physical distancing, shelter in place, shutting operations) present their own risks to communities as well. A sudden loss of income for employees and contractors can threaten food security and housing stability, and cause stress and anxiety that leads to increased domestic violence and substance abuse. Where there is a history of conflict and trauma, communities are more likely to feel the negative impacts associated with physical distancing and increased control on their movements. The best way to identify risks is to discuss them with community members themselves.
2. Determine the severity and likelihood of those risks.
To assess the severity and likelihood of these risks to community health and safety jointly consider with local stakeholders the following issues:
- What is the current health status of the community? How vulnerable are community members? What is the health baseline of the community (for example, percentage of elderly residents, prevalence of pre-existing conditions)?
- Are the community and government able to respond effectively to the spread of COVID-19? What is the testing capacity? Can this be scaled? How many hospital beds and ventilators are readily available? Is there capacity for contact tracing?
- How effectively can the mining operation limit the spread of COVID-19 among their employees? How many employees are there? Is there space for social distancing? What are the hygiene facilities like within the camp (accommodations, mess, washrooms)? Can the site operate on a reduced labour force?
- How effectively can the mining operation limit the spread between employees and communities? How many employees live in the community? What are the main contact points between employees and non-employees? Can these be limited?
- What are the local economic or social impacts if mining is suspended or employees are sent home? Will there be loss of income, benefits, or other social supports? Are there programs in place to subsidize these losses (such as CERB, small business funding)? How accessible are these programs? What can governments and companies do to mitigate the impacts of lost income?
3. Develop controls to manage the risks.
These controls might include ramping down mining operations; limiting contact points between employees and local communities; paying local employees who are on leave; supporting local employees and contractors to access government subsidized and programs; and supporting community members to access food, social supports, and mental health services.
A realistic and effective risk assessment must include representatives from the company, government and community. Communicating and collaborating are crucial for mining companies to develop an effective approach to responding to COVID-19. By doing so, we can minimize risks to the business, employees and local communities in the short-term and contribute to stronger, long term relationships with stakeholders.
CAROLYN BURNS is director of operations at NetPositive, a non-profit that works with diverse stakeholders to help local communities see sustained positive outcomes from mining.
JANE CHURCH is a co-founder and director of collaboration with NetPositive.