Strathcona Provincial Park is better known as British Columbia’s “crown jewel.” Nestled within its boundaries are the highest mountains on Vancouver Island, the highest waterfalls in all of Canada, and one of the most successful mines in Canada’s western-most province.
In fact, successive sulphide deposits have been discovered at Myra Falls Mine since 1966, prompting the installation of new infrastructure, facility expansion and increased value of the zinc and other metals mined there.
“We’ve also just renewed our park permit and a lease we have with First Nations at our shipping facility in Campbell River,” says General Manager Robert Behrendt. “Our goal is to run the mine for the next twenty years or close to it.”
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps along the way.
According to Behrendt, in 2008 the company payroll at Myra Falls was cut from 415 employees to 287. The worldwide financial crisis that same year cut the number of employees further to 207 with annual production of 1.2 million tonnes plummeting to 450,000 tonnes. Since then, it’s been a long slow climb back to the top, say Behrendt.
“We’re up to 520,000 right now with a vision to grow higher. But what we have also done is significantly increase the grades and metal unit recoveries. So even though we’re not running the same production, portions of the mill are maxed out because the grades are that much higher.”
This in turn has helped mine owner Nyrstar reduce costs and achieve favourable concentrate production at the same time. But the company hasn’t stopped there. It also embarked on a successful hydro power plan that has nearly eliminated the need for diesel-generated power and Mill upgrades to improve recoveries of primary products and production of a new lead concentrate product.
Do no harm…
When your mineral claims are surrounded entirely by a pristine provincial park, you have to take extra care to keep it pristine. As Behrendt puts it, “We have to function with an Olympic gold medal performance twenty-four hours a day.”
But every bit as important as its environmental success (witness the Mining Association of Canada’s environmental award in January) has been the ability of Nyrstar’s Myra Falls’ operations to keep its employees safe – both above and below the mine’s surface.
“In 2008 we were told we had the worst record for safety,” says Behrendt. “Last year we had the best record in British Columbia and the Yukon.”
“We’re below chicken farmers for safety,” adds Rory McFadden, Myra Falls’ Safety Manager, “and that goes for B.C.’s entire mining industry. There hasn’t been a fatality since 2008 and that includes gravel and everything in the province.”
For its achievements, Myra Falls won the 2012 Large Underground Mines Award for more than 240,000 worker hours with the lowest lost-time accident frequency rate. Even open-pit mines rarely have accident frequency rates that low. Behrendt says several factors make an underground operation riskier. These include poor ventilation and air quality, ground faults, poor access to miners if a ground collapse does occur and that most lethal of risks – fire. Fire can be devastating. “You bring a truck up if it’s on fire in an open pit, it’s a lot different than if you have a truck fire underground.”
It stands to reason that underground mine safety must begin long before an underground mine starts operating. Enter the “rock doctors.” These are degreed engineers who understand the structural capacity of rock as it changes from one area to another. Their design calculations ultimately determine steps Behrendt and his staff take to safeguard the mine and its employees – for example, preserving rock stability through bolting, screening and, in some cases, shotcreting drifts.
“They can be cable bolted or rigid bolted with different spacings and lengths of the bolt,” says Behrendt. “And understanding where the fault zones are and the different competencies of the rock is important too. You’ve got to deal with all that accordingly.”
Meantime, Myra Falls’ reliance on off-the-grid power generation in a very active seismic zone requires constant monitoring of its hydro dam, as well as its tailings and earthen dams; sometimes even its underground blasting is picked up by seismic detectors in the Comox Valley.
Fortunately, says McFadden, these tremors are very deep. “We’re told unless the epi-centre is right here it’s not a bad area to be in in the event of an earthquake.”
In addition to adequate ventilation and ground support, make sure you ask about staff working at height, Behrendt advises. Should they be tied off? If staff are working on equipment is it “locked-out, tagged-out” to prevent release of hazardous energy, electric shock, chemical combustion or falling counterweights.
At Myra Falls, scoops are operated by remote control; in front of each scoop is a wedge behind which the remote-control operator must stand to assure his or her safety. “There’s a temptation to get too close to the (scoop’s) brow. They’re not allowed to get within 15 metres of the brow.”
All mines are not created equal…
Over the years, all kinds of check point systems have been employed by mining companies to help ensure staff understand and avoid risk. These include the Neil George, Five-Point Safety System which helps the workforce recognize hazards and put controls in place to address them.
Another is the Positive Attitude Safety System (PASS) which requires, among other things, workers to meet before every shift to talk about what went well the day before and what needs improving.
Using a card system to rank risks and list safety controls can be very effective, says Michael Hajaistron, Vice-president of Behavioral Science Technology Inc., a California-based workplace safety consultant. “But it’s not the total solution.” Key to any safety program, he says, is the worker’s perception of the company’s “organizational value.”
“Does the company and its leadership team value me as an employee? Do they really do the things that they need to do to invest in safety performance?” Other factors include “upward communications,” i.e. how quickly unresolved safety issues on site go up the chain of a command for a solution and how willing staff are to both alert each other to immediate safety risks and accept those alerts.
The biggest mistake mining companies make, Hajaistron says, is devising a “one size fits all” program for safety for all their operational sites. The key is to fully delineate risk exposures at each particular location “and address them accordingly.” It’s also important to better understand a word which is often used when talking about industrial safety, i.e. “behaviours.” “We don’t think behaviour is good or bad,” Hajaistron says. “Behaviour is something I can take a picture of.”
Hajaistron classifies behaviour in three different ways: “Enabled behaviours,” which are solely within the control of the employee such as such as climbing stairs with railings but not holding onto the railings, “difficult behaviours” that an employee attempts but is unable to perform safely, such as standing on a steam pipe to break a valve because the maintenance superintendent has locked up the ladders to prevent theft. “It’s not impossible for me to do it safely,” says Hajaistron, “but the way we’re set up to do business makes it very difficult.”
The third behaviour, says Hajaistron, is “not enabled” behaviours “so that no matter what I do as an employee there are barriers from a conditional perspective enabling to do that job safely.” An example: the absence of stair railings for an employee to grab onto.
Finally, Hajaistron says never confuse behaviours with employee states of mind, i.e. Am I complacent performing this particular task? Am I just being lazy? “These,” Hajaistron explains, “are more cultural issues than behaviour issues.”
“The Road to Zero”…
That’s the phrase Robert Behrendt uses to describe his company’s central safety goal at Myra Falls. Zero fatalities. Zero injuries. But that doesn’t mean all risks can be entirely eliminated or accidents avoided. When things do go wrong, above or below ground, it’s vital that your company respond effectively. Myra falls boasts four rescue teams trained in the use of self-contained breathing systems, rope rescue, fire-smoke suppression, emergency transport response and first aid, “anything we need to get a person out from below ground,” says Rory McFadden.
As proof, McFadden cites repeated awards presented to Myra Falls at annual provincial and western national mine rescue competitions for best overall underground mine rescue and best first aid delivery. He and Behrendt glow with pride when asked about these. Each stresses the importance, however, of ensuring no company employee has to drop below ground to save the life of another.
“I don’t think what we do is rocket science,” Behrendt says. “Safety is always a topic of conversation in most places; you have to have full buy-in and there have to be consequences for unsafe behaviour.”
Gone are the days of “lagging indicators” when mining companies only compiled accident and near-miss reports, he adds. The new focus is on “leading indicators” such as job and task observations, monthly safety tours and safety talks “anything that gets ahead of a safety event. We’re starting to develop metrics on those and reporting against those.” All to ensure that a different set of numbers are impacted, Behrendt concludes – the one on your safety report board.
“When you see those numbers going down and down and down without an injury then you start to believe ‘Yeah. It can be done.’”