Mining goes on a safety journey

The Super Pit in Western Australia. Image: Northern Star Resources/Gold Industry Group

The mining sector has experienced a shift change over the last 30 years in respect to incident response, personal protective equipment, and most recently COVID-19. Safe to Work speaks with Northern Star Resources’ occupational health and safety manager (corporate), David Mccutcheon, about the change.

After a 23-year hiatus from the mining industry, Northern Star Resources Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Manager (Corporate) David McCutcheon left his extensive career as a Western Australian police officer behind to be a safety advocate in the mining sector.

Safe to Work speaks with McCutcheon about the change he has observed in the industry when it comes to safety and how it has transitioned over time.

Your first exposure to mining was through an engineering company that was servicing the mining industry in Capel, Western Australia, in the 1970s, before moving on to become a machine operator, a drill rig supervisor then a wet plant operator. What a journey.

Yes, I love the mining industry and the people I work with. But I left the mining industry for 23 years and became a police officer with the Western Australia Police Force. During that time, I spent eight years in the emergency operations unit, managing all emergencies across the state. It gave me a good grounding. But after 23 years I was ready for a change. And I knew I always had passion for the mining industry. So, I returned to mining in 2012 as an OHS superintendent, coming onboard with Northern Star Resources in 2014 with the acquisition of the Jundee gold mine in Western Australia. Now I have been in the manager (corporate) role for over 12 months, overseeing health and safety in all of Northern Star’s mining operations in Australia and Alaska.

What’s changed in the 30 years since you first started in mining?

There has been a huge shift in attitudes towards safety. Back when I first started, shortcuts were seen as worth the risk, but it’s certainly not now. Saving five minutes is not worth risking injury to yourself and your co-workers, or a week of downtime, or a job or income loss. We are all less accepting of failure to manage risks and safety incidents across the board, no matter what they are.

New workers that are coming on site also have that mindset. Through the best safety education and investigation into safety incidents that do occur, we identify failure to manage risks, unacceptable behaviour and we call it out. Our focus is on what went wrong, what was the cause, how did it happen and what controls need to be put in place to mitigate the risk of it happening again. We are now focussed more on openly addressing and sharing these points, and less on enforcement. We do not let an incident go by the wayside anymore. People make mistakes and we accept that, provided they learn from their mistakes and steps are taken to reduce the possibility of a repeat incident. But if you deliberately breach a safety rule or system, there will be a consequence. Accountability is one of Northern Star’s STARR core values, along with safety, teamwork, respect and results. That sets the expectations for the entire workforce.

The other big thing is the sharing of safety information across operations and industry. We share the flash reports we use internally across the industry so that other companies can prevent similar incidents from happening on their site. Social licence to operate has been a relatively recent driver for safety improvement today. I think it is great because it helps build the trust between investors and mining operators, and of course between employees, contractors and mining operators.

David McCutcheon in 1988 wearing complete PPE requirements.

How did mining companies manage personal protective equipment (PPE) back in the day?

We went through numerous stages of safety in the mining sector. When I first started, as long as you had a hard hat and a pair of steel cap boots on, you were fine. There was no high vis. Dark clothing was preferred most of the time because it would not look as dirty. And then the industry started supplying PPE to their workers but did not train them on how to use it.

David McCutcheon wearing the full PPE requirements of today.

The biggest thing is workforce education. You can give your team PPE all you want, but you must train them on their correct use. We validate the use of PPE through methods such as respiratory and hearing protection fit systems. This ensures a quantitative result and that our employees are attaining adequate protection from their equipment.

How about COVID-19? Has Northern Star been managing well?

We were early movers in the mining industry in managing the safety risks for our workers and the communities in which we operate. Pretty early on, as part of a medical research project, our people were able to have regular COVID-19 tests to ensure no one boarded flights to our Australian sites without a negative test in the previous 48 hours. We approached a technology company to find something that would manage our close contact from very early on. We did a trial on that back in March. We educated our people and managed their rosters so that there’d be no crossovers, with increased charter flights, including to the Pogo mine in Alaska.

Usually we would use different people to different sites for shutdowns. But since COVID-19, we’ve been managing the teams so that they can work independently and not interact with the rest of the workforce.

In addition, we socially distanced on all our sites and reduced capacity on our planes and buses, along with appropriate PPE and enhanced hygiene practices. People are required to do temperature testing and be interviewed upon their return to site and the corporate office on a regular basis. It has worked really well. We have had zero cases in Australia.

In addition, at a critical time for the state of Alaska we were able to use our procurement expertise to source and donate $2 million worth of medical gowns and masks to Alaskan health departments when their sources were slow.

In Western Australia, we enabled mobile testing in remote communities by funding not-for-profit Labs Without Walls (established by the head of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Western Australia’s School of Medicine), who developed a pioneering, highly mobile molecular diagnostic COVID-19 test, giving test results within two hours. These fast test results mean there is an earlier ability to control the transmission of the coronavirus. This was part of our $10 million COVID-19 relief fund, which has also seen donations to local businesses in the Kalgoorlie region, and to Foodbank Western Australia at a time when food insecurity in the state is growing as a result of COVID-19.

How do you think the gold sector is attracting workers into the industry?

The one common theme I see in my decades of mining career is the huge paradigm shift that is underlined by collaboration and a genuine drive to improve today. The Gold Industry Group (GIG) is an example of the industry coming together for the betterment of the sector and community. It is more important than ever now to support the vibrancy of the mining sector as it goes through the challenges of COVID-19. The GIG’s online hub of employment opportunities and career pathways, Gold Jobs, is a great way to raise public awareness on how the gold mining sector is doing, and to showcase opportunities to both entry level and experienced job seekers. A total of 309 opportunities have been advertised on Gold Jobs at the time of writing, with 279 of them in Western Australia.

The mining sector has definitely been progressive in many aspects throughout the years. Year on year, we are relentless in improving safety across the mining industry.

This article also appears in the Nov-Dec edition of Safe to Work.