“We’ve developed a culture that tries to ensure our people go home safe each and every day, each and every shift.” – Darren Parry, director of health and safety, New Gold
Contrary to some mainstream media reports, many mining companies are deadly serious about mine safety. A case in point is the New Afton mine in B.C.’s central interior, operated since the 70s as an open-pit gold and copper operation and later converted to an underground block caving mine.
Since it acquired the property in 2000, New Gold has won innumerable awards for safety at New Afton; notably B.C.’s 2011 award as the safest Large Underground Mine for zero fatalities and the lowest lost-time accident frequency rate for more than 240,000 worker hours.
Interestingly, New Afton is also the only mine with staff sufficiently trained in professional fire and rescue standards to permit them to assist local fire, rescue and PEP services in the event of an emergency.
Why New Gold focuses on safety should be self-evident: at the end of the day, reducing the number of days away due to injury or illness translates into a healthy bottom line. How they do it is another question altogether.
Bringing the house down…
New Gold blasted its first undercut for the starter raise at the New Afton mine in June 2011 and its first bell three months later. Since then the number of bells has risen to 60. “By drawing underneath,” says mine general manager Kurt Keskimaki, “we allow the rock above us to collapse down into the draw bells and we extract it with scoops.” The mine’s draw points and extraction drifts are heavily reinforced, with fiber shotcrete, split set bolts, cable bolts, screen and wire straps providing ground support along with two steel brow sets. Since commissioning its gyratory crusher in January, the mill has also reached nameplate capacity of 11,000 mt/d (or 4 million mt/y) making it, Keskimaki says proudly, “the largest underground hard rock mine in Canada.”
By the time New Afton reaches the end of its 14-year mine life, he adds, it will have produced an average of 85,000 ounces of gold and 75 million pounds of copper per year. To get there it uses conventional crushing, grinding, and concentration processes, including gravity concentration and differential flotation. Virtually everything was built from the ground up from Day One, including the concentrator, SAG mill, tailings facility – all of it supported underground by a fleet of Cat scoops, three 45 tonne Cat haul trucks, three Atlas Copco 50 tonne haul trucks and computerized two-boom electro-hydraulic drilling jumbos.
Key to a block caving operation is having enough foot print to completely collapse a mine stope without destabilizing the rest of the mine. To do that 600 meters underground, says Keskimaki, you breach right through to the surface “because if it doesn’t collapse, it’s dangerous.” That entails controlling the air gap “to eliminate the risk of air blast” and the risk to workers travelling in and out of the mine. “You can’t have connecting conduits to your active cave area.”
To predict subsidence, New Afton staff employ an underground seismic monitoring system which enables them to listen for rock break. Added to this are time domain reflectometer cables which fail as the rock breaks and show up as two readable curves: magenta which represents existing conditions and green which represents worst case safety scenario. Meantime, prisms measure subsidence at the mine’s surface and an annual fly over tells engineers if adjustments are required in a draw to ensure the cave is performing as designed.
“You also have to put your infrastructure in at an adequate distance away from where the cave will breach the surface as well as your underground access ways,” says Keskimaki. “In our case it’s a conveyor that has to have an adequate offset from the actual cave.”
It’s all about attitude…
“Access” means access by human beings as well as machine. Whether it’s mill piping or simply changing lights, workers have to get there safely and do the job without risk to life or limb. Especially crucial at New Afton, says Keskimaki, is a liner system that facilitates replacement of old liners with new. “You want to set up your sag and ball mill so that you have a liner handling system that doesn’t force the guys to manually lift and position really heavy liners.” Ditto for other equipment purchases, says the mine’s health and safety manager Kevin Mihalicz.
“We’ve really been getting away from hand-held drills, providing cabbed in units that are air conditioned and that have user-friendly controls in them and the ability to adjust seats.”
Forget these things and the risks become readily apparent at first aid stations, adds New Gold’s Director of Occupational Health & Safety Darren Parry. For one thing, as workers get older, incidents of repetitive strain and musculoskeletal injury increase. So in addition to pre-employment screening to assess a new hire’s fitness for duty, the company provides on-going training and support for existing employees.
“One thing we do very well is offer health and fitness plans, including gym memberships. In addition to having the right equipment to do the job we try to ensure people are healthy and are trained correctly in how to lift and move.”
It all begins, of course, with having the right people with the right attitude on the job. For decades the mining industry has been accused of tacitly accepting a “systemic macho culture” in which workers accept inordinate risk as part of their work day. Not at New Afton, says Keskimaki. A good example is during ground support where staff shotcrete in cycle, i.e. wetting down, mucking out, followed by fibre shotcrete, all done with safety top-of-mind.
“We don’t even go under fibre shotcrete reinforced ground until the bolts are in it…Basically you can lose your job if you ever work under unsupported ground. We don’t like risk taking mentality here at New Afton.”
More than 80 per cent of the 500 people who work at New Afton are local hires, most of whom were unacquainted with mining or milling operations at the start of the project. A six week miner trainee program helped to fill that knowledge gap, with ongoing mentorship and on site trainers to ensure both safety and skill levels were up to snuff. “We’ve worked with the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association as well,” says Keskimaki. “Twenty three per cent of our workforce is Aboriginal and it’s been very successful.” Part of that success, he adds, is due to the use of the latest in training technology.
“We own a Cat simulator trailer that the Aboriginal Mine Training Association also sponsored. It helped to bring people up to speed doing things the right way.”
Better safe than sorry…
All of this is good, of course, but the real litmus test is how you handle truly dangerous situations on the job. Among a miner’s greatest fears are hang-ups, those large boulders above the miner’s head and beyond the capacity of the scoop bucket. Not to worry at New Afton, says Keskimaki. There, a secondary MacLean rock drill makes short work of just about any large rock obstructing a draw point.
“Then we can load it from under the safety and security of the draw bell and blast it apart at shift change. We also have a Cat scoop that has a very large hydraulic impact breaker on it and often we can reduce the size of those rocks during shift as well, without putting anyone at risk.”
It’s that kind of attention to mitigating risk safety above and below ground that has won New Gold its kudos for mine safety. It also helps to have suppliers who understand both your safety and production needs. Sandvik Mining, for example, supplies much of New Afton’s underground drilling equipment, notably a mechanized bolter. Not only is it more productive than hand bolters, says global account director Bob Onucki, its “simple robust design makes it safer and cleaner.”
“When you’re working underground you’re very restricted in where you can go…so one of the products we’re really proud of is our fully mechanized bolter.”
Darren Parry acknowledges some companies don’t take the same approach to safety that New Gold does and that, as a result, people continue to get hurt on job sites. At the same time, there’s no single bullet-proof solution to lowering the risk, only “effective leadership, good programs and appropriate resources.” Learn to identify highest risk activities at every location, he advises. Hire people specially trained in risk assessment. Submit those assessments to third-party audits.
“We also avoid substituting good engineering with policy or procedures when addressing risk. Instead we engineer it out because that ensures the greatest amount of safety. We purchase state-of-the-art equipment that reduces risk to employees and cuts down on the amount of physical exertion on certain jobs.”
“Yup, it’s all about attitude. But not just yours. Consider your investors’ attitude if rumors of unsafe operations start floating around. Will they still invest? Or how about your insurer’s attitude? Hurt people on a regular basis, and you’re going to affect your bottom line because your insurance premiums will go through the roof. So that’s another business reason you don’t hurt people,” says Parry.