Safety in Mining. It’s a Way of Life.

Mine Worker Safety

Mining in Manitoba operates on a safety culture with rigorous standards that are adhered to 24/7. Worker safety is always a top priority. Many might be surprised by the sophisticated systems, processes, and technology in place in today’s mines to uphold this goal.

While no injuries are always the goal, it’s worth noting that the loss time accident rate in mines is no higher than other comparable industries.

“Safety is definitely the mindset in mines today,” says Richard Trudeau, Director of Human Resources, Indigenous and External Affairs, Hudbay Minerals Inc. “While there have been incidences in the past, the culture is that safety is the number one priority.”

Safety management systems are in place at all mines to ensure the highest standards are adhered to at all times. “We’re ISO certified, so we have external auditors that come in regularly,” he says. “We have stringent regulations that we follow from the Province of Manitoba. Regulators come on site on a monthly and even daily basis and inspect and evaluate how we’re controlling those regulations underground at our operations.”

Trudeau adds that while having systems and regulations in place is important, proper training of employees is also essential. “We train constantly on safety and on what are the risks out there that they can mitigate so that they’re always safe. And it’s not a one-time training thing. It’s training that continues on throughout each employee’s career, really developing an awareness of the lifesaving rules that they must follow at all times.”

Joey Champagne is Operations Director of Tantalum Mining Corporation of Canada Ltd. (TANCO). Champagne says that when you work in a mine, safety isn’t just part of what you do. “It’s everything you do,” he says. There are checks and balances in place to ensure safety for every aspect of the job. Adherence begins when you walk onto a mining site and well before you ever go underground.

“It’s really no different than when you build a house. Making sure it’s structurally sound is a matter of life and death for the people living in it. We approach safety in mines the same way — from the ground up.”

Champagne adds that there is a focus on ensuring everything is in place for emergencies, which includes teams assigned to monitor anything that can go wrong. “There are entire safety declaration plans that look at everything from air quality to your communication methods. The amount of planning and foresight that people are actually bringing to the table really puts you ahead of the game, because you already know what to do.”

Mines in Manitoba all have Safety & Mine Rescue teams who are trained on emergency and lifesaving response techniques.

“Underground mines cannot operate without Mine Rescue teams that meet stringent standards and training requirements,” says Stacy Kennedy, President of the Mining Association of Manitoba Inc. (MAMI) and Director of Operations, Vale Manitoba.

“We have over 80 years of mine rescue experience in the province,” Kennedy says. MAMI has been at the helm of developing governance for Manitoba’s Mine Rescue program, which is very well developed. “Each mine has to meet certain criteria for emergency response in order to have a licence to operate. We also have mutual aid within our province, which means that all the mines here will support one another when an emergency occurs.” Kennedy says this side of mine operations is massively understated.

Mine Rescue teams operate with a continuous focus on challenging and improving their skills and emergency responses. Provincial Mine Rescue Competitions are held each year at one of the operating mines in Manitoba to test each team’s readiness to respond to a variety of emergency situations. “These competitions help team members practice appropriate response techniques to ensure the safety of our people,” says Kennedy.

Mine rescue training is intense. “To start, an individual has to pass a selection process, which ensures they have the fitness level to do the job, but also can function wearing the appropriate rescue equipment, including a breathing apparatus. You have to be comfortable wearing a mask, because you can’t take it off when you’re underground fighting a fire or in an unknown situation,” Kennedy says. This is just one example of how an individual’s capacity is tested.

“Then you get taken through a series of surface activities to make sure that you don’t have any fears or anything that may come about when you’re executing a rescue. Once that’s established, you go through intense training underground, in smoke, in no visibility situations, doing just about everything you can imagine, including extensive first responder skills. So there’s a heavy component of preparing for situations where you can respond appropriately if someone is injured, but also in techniques for extracting them from the situation and getting them to safety.”

Comradery is high in Mine Rescue teams, extending to the entire operation.

“That team spirit is deeply integrated into the workplace culture of any mining operation,” says Champagne. “It’s embedded in how people look out for you and your wellbeing and everyone that you’re working with. There’s a comradery in mining regardless of what role you’re in, because everybody is looking out for one another.”

Manitoba has a long history of experts developing widely used safety standards in mining, one of which is the 5-Point Safety System (also called the Neil George Safety System after Winnipeg engineer Neil George), which is now used globally.  Developed in 1942, the program is made up of five components:

  1. Check the entrance to the workplace.
  2. Check that the workplace and equipment are in good order.
  3. Check that the job is being worked safely.
  4. Discuss a topic of safety.
  5. Do the employees know how to continue to work safely?

Points 1 through 3 are done by the employee and verified by the supervisor upon arrival to the workplace. The fourth step is a safety discussion between the employee and the supervisor, while the fifth is a verification by the employee that they have the correct training, experience, and motivation to continue working safely. This is also verified by the supervisor prior to their leaving the workplace.

“George is the only person registered in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame for this contribution to advance mine safety,” notes Ed Huebert, long time Manitoban and mining executive who served with the Manitoba government as an advisor on mining policy. “That’s a big deal and definitely something worth celebrating.”

This 5-Point Safety System is the foundation for more complex and sophisticated systems that have evolved through the decades.

Kennedy shares that systems are in place to account for every person as they go underground. “We’re aware of where each individual is at all times in the underground work environment. In the event that there is a fire, you will account for every single individual.” But it’s not just about accounting for people in emergencies, Kennedy notes. “If any person hasn’t reported in through the call-in process, that would also trigger Mine Rescue.”

Mutual Aid, mentioned earlier, is an agreement between the major operating mines to support each other’s Mine Rescue teams when needed. “So right now it would be between Hudbay, TANCO and Vale. In the event that Snow Lake had a fire and needed additional personnel, we would shut down our operations and send people to them to do whatever has to be done to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Kennedy notes she feels safer underground than in a parking lot at a shopping mall. “It’s the rules and regulations, the rigor that goes into ground support creating these safe work environments. There’s so much more to it than meets the eye.”

Scott Anderson, Vice-President of Exploration at 1911 Gold Corporation, agrees. “The age-old image of the old miner with a hard hat and soot on their face is long gone. It’s a completely different process now. It’s very high-tech. A lot of the work can be done remotely now with remote-controlled vehicles underground and so forth. So it’s a much safer, cleaner industry now.”

Air quality improvements have also come a long way. Ventilation, which has long been an area of concern in mines, is changing significantly with vastly improved underground air exchange systems and the use of battery-powered vehicles and equipment. “It’s quieter and cleaner in these spaces. Workers are exposed to less exhaust and noise pollution,” says Kennedy. She sees battery power as a game-changer and is proud that Manitoba is poised to be a major provider of lithium, an essential component in the green economy.

Champagne weighs in: “There are acts and regulations for monitoring safety compliance, but compliance is just one piece of the puzzle. We have mine inspectors, we have safety committees that are working together regularly, and there’s also many different forums established to address safety topics. So it’s not just a department looking after safety, it’s everybody on site looking after safety every hour of the day.

“And that goes the same for health, environmental compliance — you name it. Anything that’s about our livelihood and our wellbeing, there are many eyes on it all the time.”



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