Cape Breton mine records two million accident-free hours

Safety is more than just a mantra or a slogan at the Canadian Gypsum Co.’s Little Narrows mine, located on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Safety is more than just a mantra or a slogan at the Canadian Gypsum Co.’s Little Narrows mine, located on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Indeed, one of the first things that greets visitors to the mine’s main office is a big sign that reads: "CGC Little Narrows. Proud of our safety culture."

And, they have good reason to be pleased with themselves. The Little Narrows operation has won a number of safety awards over the years and it received another this spring. The Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (CIM) presented Little Narrows with the John T. Ryan Trophy, which goes to the operation with the lowest rate of reportable injuries per 200,000 hours worked over the previous year.

"There’s a huge emphasis on safety here," says plant controller Tanya McLean, who is a member of the mine’s safety committee. "We’re always trying to set the bar higher every year."

Given their track record, though, it’s a little difficult to imagine how they can set the bar much higher. They had zero reportable injuries last year and, in fact, they haven’t had one such incident in the 13 years McLean has worked at the mine.

At the time that the award was presented, the Little Narrows workforce of 45 hourly and six salaried employees had accumulated two million hours, or 5,600 days accident-free.

The Little Narrows mine, named for a nearby hamlet, produces crushed gypsum and anhydrite rock, which is used in wallboard, commonly known as drywall, and as a component of cement.

CGC is a subsidiary of Chicago-based United States Gypsum Company, which has owned the operation since 1954. Production, however, began under the original owners in 1935, and the quarries now span some 900 acres.

The entire operation is very much governed by the seasons, says McLean. It is located on the shore of Bras D’Or Lakes, some 60 kilometres southwest of the city of Sydney. The product is shipped to markets in Canada, the U.S, and elsewhere aboard ocean-going vessels that come in from the Atlantic, cross the lake, and take on loads of up to 40,000 tonnes.

The shipping season begins in early May, once the lake is completely ice-free and usually continues until late November, or early December.

Mining also comes to a halt then because the product can’t be stockpiled and exposed to the elements. The employees spend the winter months doing maintenance work and stripping overburden from untapped sections of the deposits.

Quarrying begins again in April and sufficient amounts of rock are crushed to size and stored in sheds or on shore near the loading facilities to await the arrival of the first ships.

"We operate on a just-in-time basis," says McLean. "Our orders have to be confirmed before we can start production."

Although there are ebbs and flows in production at Little Narrows, safety is a year-round preoccupation.

"We set goals for ourselves every year," she says. "Our workforce is very experienced and they’re committed to filling out accident-no-injury reports when an incident occurs so we can eliminate the hazard."

Like any mining operation, there is plenty of potential for mishaps and injuries.

"We have heavy machinery going all the time, including 200-ton trucks, large excavators and bulldozers," McLean adds. "People are working around crushing machines and conveyors. We have a lot of moving and exposed machinery."

The safety culture at Little Narrows, however, goes well beyond signs and slogans, although these are posted in buildings throughout the mine.

Workplace rules have been put in place over the years and compiled in a manual that now runs to 113 pages. Employees are expected to be familiar with the contents and contractors coming on-site are given a safety orientation briefing before they go to work.

Obviously, based on the mine’s outstanding record, safety is taken seriously and it’s a credit to the employees (and the mine’s visitors) that taking care of business involves taking care of people first, and that’s why Canadian Gypsum Company and its Little Narrows mine has been a safe and productive place to work for many years and is deserving of its recent safety award.


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