The evolution of remote mine workers

Rio Tinto’s Brisbane integrated operations centre (BIOC) looks after the company’s remote bauxite operations. Credit: Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group have led the emerging norm of working remotely from mine sites. Safe to Work takes a closer look at each company’s metropolitan-based operations centres.

Technology is strengthening its track record in breaking down geographical barriers for humans, from the introduction of cars and airplanes, to today helping mining projects operate without the on-site presence of employees.

Rio Tinto is a leading example of a company that continues to adopt these technological advancements.

The company consolidates all relevant shift data to a central point in mine control at its operations centre in Brisbane.

The Albert Street centre provides 24/7 monitoring to the Queensland-based Weipa and Northern Territory-based Gove bauxite mines’ safety, production and quality aspects.

Rio Tinto integrated operations general manager Daniel van der Westhuizen says the team manages mine dispatch, monitoring and control capabilities and port and grade dynamic scheduling for the Weipa and Gove bauxite mines.

“Our operations centre provides 24/7 operation and monitoring of all safety, production and quality aspects at our remote bauxite mines,” he tells Safe to Work.

The capability of the Brisbane integrated operations centre (BIOC) does not stop at the operation of heavy equipment; it also optimises the mines’ stockpiles and supply chain.

Rio Tinto incorporates technology such as fatigue monitoring systems, data analytics and automation initiatives, such as removing the need for manual visual inspection, at the BIOC.

The company has introduced a fully automated ‘drone in a box’ system, which is made up of an industrial-grade drone that can launch and land autonomously from a weather-proof base station.

“We’re continuing a trial and working through the approvals process with Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to operate the system remotely from the Operations Centre in Brisbane,” van der Westhuizen says.

“The trial has proven the value and accuracy of having access to real-time stockpile monitoring as well as access to post-processed datasets such as high-resolution aerial images, 3D models and volumetric reports, to help with stockpile monitoring, scheduling, grade control and reporting.

“With safety at the forefront, we’ve been able to integrate technologies such as CCTV and drones that assist our teams to complete their work safely and efficiently.”

The BIOC provides benefits that extend far beyond the removal of employees from the mine face.

It also facilitates flexible arrangements that have proven to lift team engagement, according to van der Westhuizen.

“They are better able to balance work and personal commitments,” he says.

“The centre currently has 50 employees, of whom half are female. Flexible arrangements include staggered shift hours, job share arrangements and an array of work from home options.”

The same experience is replicated on level one of the Fortescue centre in Perth. Iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group has refurbished its expanded integrated operations centre known as the Fortescue Hive, which provides employees with greater flexibility.

There are 330 team members across Fortescue’s supply chain that work together 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the Fortescue Hive.

Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines says their positions in the integrated operations centre (IOC) mean they no longer need to regularly travel to site.

She adds that the Cloudbreak mine control system leads the way, with working arrangements of 25 per cent, 50 per cent and 75 per cent of a full-time roster offered as flexible options across the team.

“(This has) proven to be beneficial to team members, and to Fortescue, by helping to retain team knowledge and experience,” Gaines says.

“The Hive was built as an all abilities accessible space and in doing so has built a flexible workplace which has fostered supportive and inclusive culture.”

The IOC, though situated remotely from the real actions of a mine site, is not that far removed from reality.

It includes many team members in planning, operations and mine control who have worked on each of the company’s mine sites in the Pilbara, bringing an invaluable perspective and real-world experience to the IOC, Gaines continues.

“There is a period of adapting to working remotely as remote operations require different skills such as being able to think in a virtual world,” she says.

“We train and support team member as they learn a different way of operating.”

Enriched by port, rail, shipping and marketing teams, the Fortescue Hive has embraced innovation and technology to bring many traditionally site-based teams together.

According to Gaines, there is a deliberate flow of information from planning through to shipping and marketing, which allows the company to sell the right tonnes of the right quality at the right time.

The insights and marketing intelligence of the sales and marketing team can be instantly shared with the planning and operations teams.

“This truly integrated approach allows us to capitalise on market dynamics to deliver value to our customers, shareholders and the broader community,” she says.

“At Fortescue, the safety of our team members is our highest priority and the adoption of innovation and technology has been fundamental to driving further safety improvements throughout our operations.

“Working side by side in the Fortescue Hive, allows for cohesive planning across the business, as our teams to seamlessly share information. This underpins continual reliability improvements in our supply chain, which is fundamental to the safe operation of a mine site.”

The existence of the Fortescue Hive doesn’t mean that all its regional workers have relocated to Perth.

In spite of Fortescue’s pioneering move to become the first Western Australian operator to control a railway from outside the region in 2009, a residential workforce of around 500 team members live in Port Hedland.

This article will appear in the Nov-Dec edition of Safe to Work.