The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the entire globe, changing the way people work and live, including the mining industry. Salomae Haselgrove investigates how the mining industry has supported the Australian economy during a time of crisis.
While industries such as hospitality, tourism and entertainment almost completely shut down, mining has been deemed an essential service, therefore a key primary industry keeping the Australian economy afloat during the pandemic.
Being an essential industry, however, did not mean that mines avoided changes in the way they operated during the pandemic.
From March until June, for example, Fortescue Metals Group changed its fly-in fly-out (FIFO) rostering to four weeks on, two weeks off from its regular two weeks on, one week off rosters.
This decision was made to reduce travel to and from its remote sites by 40 per cent, while allowing operations to continue without compromising the health of its employees, their families and the communities in which it operates.
BHP was another company that introduced stringent measures across its operations to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
The major miner implemented social distancing at its sites, camps and offices, limited gatherings of people, suspended international travel and increased flexible rostering.
It also reduced the number of workers travelling to and from shifts on aeroplanes and buses, and performed temperature checks and surveys of all employees before boarding company operated transport.
Even with restrictions and changes to regular operations, mining has been paramount in keeping Australian workers in jobs and related businesses operational, with a flow-on effect supporting travel, manufacturing and service industries.
Australian tungsten company Rafaella Resources understands the impact of the pandemic all too well, with one of its key assets, the Santa Comba project being in Spain, while most of the team, including managing director Steven Turner is based in Australia.
Turner arrived back to Australia from a site visit on March 10, 36 hours before Australia closed its international borders, cutting his visit short in the midst of making important business decisions regarding the project.
With travel between Australia and Spain being an integral part of Rafaella’s business, Turner says the company quickly had to adapt, like many others have during the pandemic as well.
“The biggest change not just for Rafaella Resources but in the whole market has been the travel ban,” Turner tells Safe to Work.
“The working environment has changed a lot in a short time, with the travel ban impacting people across entire companies, from FIFO workers all the way up to executives that need to travel to visit sites for their business development.”
Unable to visit the Santa Comba site, Rafaella Resources hired a local project manager, allowing them to continue progressing the project despite majority of the executive team being unable to meet with the Spanish department of mines in person.
As Turner explains, the mining industry has been well prepared to quickly adapt to new ways of operating amid the pandemic.
“The mining industry is very resilient,” he says. “There is already a strong sense of safety culture in every mining operation so putting additional safety measures in place is something mining companies were very well prepared for.
“This is something that can be rolled into their normal weekly meetings, which always start with health and safety so it’s already front and centre to integrate coronavirus measures such as social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks very easily into the existing mine safety culture.”
Having been able to so aptly adjust its working procedures and expectations, the majority of Australian mining operations have continued despite the pandemic, with the various health measures in place.
Turner says mining has been “fundamental” at this time, as demonstrated by the state and federal governments deeming it an essential industry and allowing travel to and from mine sites to continue.
“Mining has been critical, which means jobs are largely unaffected and new investment is still happening in the Australian mining industry,” he explains.
“This has helped to maintain and create further jobs, such as the airline industry, which although limited, is still flying in support of the mining industry.”
The ability to keep mine workers employed has also helped to improve the public’s perception of the industry.
With many people across various industries suffering lost or reduced employment due to the pandemic, the wider community is seeing the importance mining has to Australian livelihoods.
“Regional communities are generally very, very supportive of mining,” he says. “They are the ones who are employed in mining and these communities are very supportive seeing the investment mining makes in their local area.
“Now the economy is suffering and jobs are on the line, the people who do protest against mining are changing their focus.
“Seeing the mining industry still investing in communities and employing people, therefore supporting families, the general perception has changed.”
As some parts of Europe, including Spain are recording fewer cases, they are starting to open their borders again to take advantage of the summer tourism season and the economic boost it brings with it.
Turner is urging Australia to re-open its borders as soon as possible, to allow business to return to normal.
He fears that the focus has changed from minimising the risk to eliminating the virus altogether, which will see borders remain closed for longer despite the number of cases decreasing.
“Australia has handled the pandemic extremely well, particularly at the beginning and we have managed to, for the most part, stop the import of coronavirus at the outlet,” he says.
“The idea of this was to get prepared with ventilators in intensive care units so we haven’t really figured out what the risk tolerance here is, so we need to watch these places that are opening up and see what the impact is.
“The travel ban has had a significant impact on businesses and the sooner we can reopen borders, the better because it will allow operations to return to normal much more quickly, especially as we now have now built our health system’s capacity to manage any localised outbreaks.”
This article also appears in the July-August edition of Safe to Work.