Mining in the age of COVID

Mining truck

Brunel recently brought together a group of leaders from across the mining industry to discuss the workforce challenges emerging in Australia as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, which included representatives from Ausdrill, Bis Industries, Emeco, Macmahon, New Century, Round Oak Minerals, the Queensland Resource Council and Chamber of Commerce & Industry WA, discussed both actions taken to date and some of the future measures which may be necessary for the challenges ahead.

COVID-19 and its impact on Australia's Mining Industry

Brunel Australasia Executive General Manager, Nathan Sharpe said the overall tone of the conversation, and feedback on what is happening within the industry, was remarkably positive despite the circumstances.

“There was a clear common theme across the discussion – that of employers, sites and workers all seeking the best outcome for everyone, and a genuine understanding across the board that these actions have everybody’s best interests in mind,” Mr Sharpe said.

“In stressful times it’s not uncommon for people to become agitated and turn on one another, but that’s not the story we’re hearing. Overwhelmingly, people seem to be pulling together, which is a really inspiring response from the industry and its workforce – but more importantly, it is that attitude and mindset which has enabled things to continue working as well as they have – that’s not just important for business and workers, but ultimately for the economy as a whole.”

Yellow mining trucks

Foresite crucial to a successful response

Over the course of the virtual meeting, the group discussed strategies to test and contain workers, manage social distancing within the workplace, protect and engage with local communities, and forecast what lies ahead. Given the mining industry’s widespread use of FIFO workers, the recent introduction of interstate travel restrictions impacted on a substantial proportion of the workforce, but as Emeco CEO Ian Testrow remarked, this was a move most within the industry had anticipated.

“Everyone saw this coming and we acted pretty quickly to make sure our people could stay in the same state that they’re working in. In some cases, that meant redeploying them to a site within their home state, or in others, temporarily relocating them to the state in which they work,” Mr Testrow said.

“I’m amazed at how accommodating to change our people have been. I think it comes down to an understanding of how extremely fortunate we are to be considered essential services and for our workers to able to continue working and generating an income.”

Containment measures shared by the group spanned everything from temperature testing, eliminating cross-over between A and B shifts, increasing roster lengths to reflect the 14-day self-isolation period, and eliminating contact between travelling workers and local communities. Round Oak Minerals CEO Robert Cooper said that businesses have a responsibility to protect not only their workers and business interests, but also the communities where they operate.

“We’re trying to be as comprehensive as we can in our measures to protect everyone both at our sites and within the community,” Mr Cooper said.

“We conduct temperature testing at the airport prior to departure, or as a minimum test upon arrival, we use designated areas where our people wait in transit and then coordinate point-to-point travel using designated drivers and vehicles to ensure there’s no incidental community contact on their way to site."

"We’re also running mock scenarios on site to test our process for isolating anyone who does display symptoms.”

An agile mindset required for the months ahead

Macmahon General Manager, Civil & Surface, Carl O’Hehir noted that there are variety of different approaches being used.

“We’re finding some of our clients prefer to go with back-to-back, even time rosters, so they can maintain an A team and a B team with no cross-over, whereas are others are extending rosters to minimise travel through the airport,” Mr O’Hehir said.

“Looking ahead, with much longer rosters and extended periods away from family, we need to start making sure everyone’s headspace is right. Our focus at the moment is on using our EAP (Employee Assistance Program), trying to get more online support activities such as fitness classes to keep our people engaged.”

Queensland Resources Council CEO Ian Macfarlane advised the group that the next phase the industry will need to prepare for are restrictions related to infection hotspots.

“We don’t expect there will be a situation where there will be restriction on FIFO or DIDO workers across the board, however we do see potential for restrictions on workers coming from, or passing through, a region that’s been identified as a hotspot,” Mr Macfarlane said.

“If someone gets sick and they can’t identify who they had contact with that had COVID-19, and if you get a lot of them in a suburb or a region … they will basically stop all travel in and out of the region no matter who you are.”

With no clear timeframe on just how long COVID-19 will challenge the industry’s ability to operate, the road ahead is filled with much uncertainty. But if the journey so far has taught us anything, it’s that we can expect members of the mining industry to continue reaching out to one another, to learn, to get creative, and to collaborate as we develop unique solutions for these unprecedented times.