The New Normal? A focus on health and safety - an Interview with Mark Adams - General Manager and Ben Wither - Manager, HSEC and People at Newcrest Red Chris Mining Limited
Globe 24-7 is thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Mark Adams, General Manager at Red Chris Mine & Ben Wither, Manager HSEC and People. Here you will learn about the challenges facing the mining industry and some of the solutions Red Chris mine has put into place and how they are managing HR, including recruitment, onboarding, business travel, and employee engagement through COVID 19. While Newcrest is a global organization, for this article Mark & Ben have chosen to speak only about the Red Chris site.
Newcrest Mining Limited, a global mining company and Australia’s largest gold producer, have recently expanded its footprint into British Columbia as the operator of a Joint Venture company, Newcrest Red Chris Mining Limited. Red Chris mine is located 80 km south of Dease Lake, BC, on the Tahltan territory.
Following the purchase of a 70% stake in Imperial Metals Red Chris, Mark commenced as General Manager, responsible for the full integration of the mining business into Newcrest, while Ben Provides safe, efficient, and cost-effective operational control and leadership of the People, Health, Safety, Environment, Community and Risk groups at the Red Chris Operation.
1. Adam Dyer: Regarding the safety regulations and restrictions, one area that has suffered a significant impact was the supply chain. Have you guys noticed that at all in the operations?
Mark and Ben: From a PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) perspective there is an impact. We 1. cannot get P2 masks or respirators that are relevant for our workers in exposed areas. We are currently working with our vendors to overcome the shortage of the filter cartridges used in our respirators, with alternative disposable masks secured in the interim. In general, the respirator/ face mask PPR products have been disrupted with long lead times and limited options. For larger consumable items, we monitor these closely and were quick to increase inventory levels to safeguard against potential shortages. The tire is one such example where we purchased additional stock. Currently, we are not seeing any impact on fuel or other large items i.e. steel and construction material. Of course, travel has been just about non-existent, so probably the biggest impact is people resource, we cannot move people around to manage the business easily. Newcrest, like a lot of multinationals, relies on global mobility to leverage our internal SME’s. It is difficult for us to get personnel out of Australia, with the isolation requirements and border restriction have impacted our flexibility in this front.
We are lucky now that, compared to our other operations, we can at least still move within the country. In Australia, there are restrictions between states.
As mentioned, our two biggest impacts are PPE supply interruptions and people mobility disruptions.
2. Adam Dyer: What have you done to overcome the challenges when it does come to PPE and supplies?
Mark and Ben: For the PPE, it is about making sure that we use the appropriate level. When COVID first presented we saw the global response with huge demand in respiratory PPE, with increased consumption of the P2 masks, due to the protective rating. It was important for us to seek guidance from the appropriate governing bodies and our medical team to ensure we applied the right PPE to the right level. Based on this guidance we worked with local communities to manufacture handmade masks.
3. Adam Dyer: Mackenzie has released a report saying there was an increase of 27% of additional costs since COVID. Have you come across that at Red Chris?
Mark and Ben: We have seen increases but I would not say it is as high as the quoted 27%, but it’s certainly higher than 20%. The increase is linked with the impact to overtime due to the extended work rotations and deviation from our employment variance for the workforce. In terms of consumables (building materials, reagents) we have not seen any marked change.
4. Luis Valente: A topic that is polemic in the mining sector is shifting capacity and having to be creative with the workload of functional areas. Have you had to address this topic at Red Chris? If so, how?
Mark and Ben: Efficiency and effectiveness of our workforce has and continues to be a fundamental piece of work at Red Chris, in particular the organisation design, levels of work, and capacity building. This work will occur in phases, initially targeting clarity of roles and removal of inefficiencies through embedded management practices and support systems.
SAP is being implemented which will support both workforce management and operational maintenance, with two elements interlinked. The improved efficiencies in the planning and work assignment will prevent the reactive work and reduce the dependency of a contractor to supplement our workforce. So yes, there is an ongoing focus on capacity building and more efficiency, which was underway regardless of COVID.
To ensure success and flexibility in organisation design we need to be supported by communication technology, and currently, this is an area in need of improvement. Long terms solutions are being worked on, however, there is still 6-12 months before the solution is in place.
5. Luis Valente: Pre COVID, Red Chris was working on a project expansion, I think you are still working on that project expansion. Has it impacted or has it created additional challenges with project timelines or how do you see it going forward?
Mark and Ben: I think there has been a slight delay in project timelines, but I think generally we are coming to terms with how business is done here. I would not like to apportion delay entirely to COVID effects. I think there is a lack of an understanding of how things are done in Canada that we probably did not appreciate. We have seen odd projects that have slipped, for example, the fleet management system has slipped, which is reflective of the logistical challenges. In response to COVID, we implemented an extended roster, that provided slightly greater than 14 days of isolation for our employees, with the objective of minimising the probability of transmission to as close to zero as possible. The extended isolation period means, that there would be a very, very low probability of transmission of COVID-19 into the communities when the locally based workforce left Red Chris.
A new challenge linked with the project expansion is linked to the engagement and consultation portion of the Project Impact Assessment. Traditionally the engagement would occur via town hall meetings, providing a platform to have questions and concerns heard. Considering we will not be able to conduct this type of engagement due to COVID restrictions, we need to investigate new ways to engage, including virtual town halls, webinars, and all sorts of communication media to message with the community. On-site we have already moved toward the different communication platforms to convey messages with our workforce, with smaller prestart meetings and a dedicated media channel at the camp.
6. Luis Valente: With the project expansion comes ramp up: do you foresee this having an impact on hiring and if so, how do you plan around hiring for the project expansion?
Mark and Ben: You guys are directly involved in doing early recruitment for the project, and that team would be part of the execution team as well. In terms of the work execution, they would be predominantly done by a third party or in-house, it is more of a contract contractor approach. We have seen a greater number of higher quality people applying for roles here, which is reassuring. Certainly, with the TIA which contains our major construction project this year, we have had no issues finding additional people to work on that. In fact, if anything, we must push back on the number of projects because we were delayed in the camp upgrades to the camp facilities.
7. Luis Valente: As the pandemic presents several risks to both health and economy stability, how have the operations responded to keeping people safe.
Mark and Ben: At its core, the ability for us to be able to continue to operate is conditionalized complying with the ministries, with requests around camp safety and workforce safety. We have a series of precautionary measures that are in place and the effectiveness of those controls has a strong correlation for the mine to be able to continue to operate unimpacted, so the workforce is acutely aware that it is reassuring to be able to continue working and seeing other jurisdictions where they’ve stopped and just shut down pretty quickly. They are aware of the risk that the mine closure would have an impact on them. The other part is that the additional pressure from working remotely is tough enough, but then when you go and work remotely and the external pressure on your family at home, partners may have lost work. I am aware of that and trying to manage that process as well to ensure that people have support through EAP programs and trying to be fairly flexible. We have quite regularly charted flights and helicopters and driven people long distances to get home quickly if they need to, because of emergencies. Just being conscious of that and having some controls in place and there’s always opportunity, but that is the sort of platform we have got.
Luis Valente: Excellent, it is a combination of keeping people physically safe with the measures that you put in place, but also mentally.
Mark and Ben: Yes, again it goes back to communication and people sometimes feel disconnected. They have pressure from home because of lots of things going on. In the early stages of COVID, there were impacts on supply and access to household goods, this weighed on the workforce, saying “what am I going to do for food, my wife can’t get this and that”. To that end, we have done some work with the community as well as providing them staple foods. We gave them food hampers to take a bit of pressure off in that regard.
8. Adam Dyer: How was everyone’s response to the temporary three and three rotation, was it received well?
Mark and Ben: I think it is mixed. I think it took us a while to land on the three and three rosters, there was discussion around four and two. We did a lot of work balancing transmission risk with fatigue risk, obviously the longer the roster the higher the fatigue risk. We used a group of people that both Ben and I have used in Australia, which is probably the leading company in solving mining issues, probably the leading components of fatigue management. We concluded that with their assistance, along with some very high caliber medical assistants the three and three gave us the best balance between fatigue and transmission. There is no doubt that a three and three is a higher fatigue risk but at the point, the decision was made we preferred to run the fatigue risk with fatigue management, particularly on two half-day fatigue break days, rather than go for a shorter cycle where the probability of transmission would be higher. And that is one of the reasons why we pushed back on going on a two and two because it takes us four days to get everybody. In fact, all we would be left with was about eight to nine days of isolation, which means that the probability of transmission rises from 0.001% to 32%, and that is a risk that we are not prepared to take.
Effectively I have heard from a number of people that they believe they are safer here than in the general community, which is reassuring. Now, is that universal? No. Are there some people that do not like a three and three? Yes, it is not as if we are asking them to work a three and three with no additional compensation. That is not an issue for us. They are being adequately compensated for it, but it is a long roster, particularly 4,500 feet up in the Rockies. Certainly, by the end of the third week, some people are physically spent, but the mantra has been: if people are fatigued, talk to your supervisor. You will be paid, unlike the previous regime whereby if you did not come to work for whatever reason you are not paid, we have a far more mature view of that. We have certainly not seen an increase in safety incidents. This is a good time of the year for us, we have certainly seen no difference between safety incidents this year to last year.
In terms of business performance, we had the best year we have ever had up to the 30th of June. It is the only year in five years that we have made a budget and exceeded the budget. We have had no production issues this year so far for six weeks. Is it perfect? No, it is not perfect. Would I like to go back to two and two? Yes, but I do not want to unbalance the seesaw between transmission and fatigue, because that would take me in the wrong direction. If there were no cases in BC (British Columbia) and there was a vaccine I could give everybody, I think it would be a different conversation. But the reality is, it is not, in fact if anything vaccines look like at least February, March of next year, the earliest. The COVID-19 cases are rising in BC and to rebalance it in favour of fatigue is something that is not contemplative in our view, and my view particularly. Yes, and switching from two-two to three-three is not a five-minute job. It is a five-week turnaround, so it is not something you do: just flick a switch.
A lot of the efficiencies we have identified during our travel, this new travel program will continue forward, because we’ve unlocked a new way where we can get to the site faster, and we now have a workday, first day, last day. This has really given us the impetus, for example, we are now flying to and from Calgary, we are flying from the island. All of those have reduced stress for people because they don’t have to sweat on “Can I catch the last seaplane home?” or “Am I going to get the WestJet back to Calgary?”, “Can we fly directly?”. And it has also allowed us to attract talent from the eastern states. – Adam Dyer: Yes, it helped us too with the recruitment, because we have got more Marshall points. But is that going to stay? Mark and Ben: Yes, both indefinitely.
9. Adam Dyer: You mentioned you have got a percentage of your people working remotely. Was that an increase since COVID, is that mostly due to it?
Mark and Ben: No, we had not before, we had no one working remotely. - Adam Dyer: How are you addressing their engagement levels with the way things are? - Mark and Ben: It depends. Some of them were fine with it. In my team, I have three that work remotely, and it is no different than being next to the office before, but because they have done it. It depends on where they are on the work level. If they are an experienced professional, they can work anywhere. It is the ones where the transactional style work from home are the ones we struggle with, because they are the ones that are working remotely, but they will be the essential hub versus working from home. There will be a portion that could continue to work from home because they can and there will be a portion that will have to go to a site centralized support network somewhere based on the work delivery perspective. We see a far more flexible model just to an extent working from home is impeded because of not having the connectivity. I think that will change next year when we get access to the fibers at the bottom of the valley. That is a work in progress. I think generally a lot of people like to have the social interaction that work gives them, not everybody, but a lot of people like coming to work. Particularly for First Nation employees.
10. Adam Dyer: I know you have touched on it throughout the interview about the local communities, but are there any concerns that you have come across? I know you have made adjustments, for example, the rotation to stop the potential spread of COVID. Are there any other concerns that local communities have had up there?
Mark and Ben: Yes, the one was around protecting the community. Their communities are very vulnerable, they do not have the medical infrastructure to deal with an outbreak in the community. To absolve that one, we have partnered to provide a dedicated medivac helicopter on standby, in the event there is an immediate need. It is a COVID-ready helicopter with a flight care paramedic.
In addition to the medivac, we provided medical support in the form of an advanced care paramedic, who provided support and guidance as the communities navigated through COVID. This was transitioned out based on some requests to the provision of a counseling service instead, for the short term, so they have got a youth council which they would have requested, so we’re doing that. But then we have also got a standby one in case we need to bring one back in here.
There were concerns around accessing common household goods, with limitations of availability and markups - >400%. We initiated a food hamper program where we went through and got all the bulk staples: rice, flour, sugar, etc. and they were delivered to each of the households in the communities.
We are launching a program which is called an economic recovery plan (Sustainable Economics Futures - SEF). We have engaged a specialist that is coming in to help the businesses that have been impacted by COVID and help them come up with recovery options.
We could not come in and out of the community because of isolation. We have got an office and a resident in the community now, which means, they’re living in the community. We have got someone embedded so we do not have to worry about coming in and out. That has also allowed us to increase our communication channels and we are aware of things far quicker now. Any issues, I can be addressed so much quicker. And then we’ve done a community support fund, Newcrest has committed funds to support the community with people impacted by COVID, everything from a fish camp as they can’t do the traditional fishing program, so we sponsored the camp, to facilitate the capture and distribution of fish to the community.
Adam Dyer: Also, I know the recruitment process established to ensure there is transparency to ensure local communities have an opportunity to apply with minimal difficulty. Mark and Ben: Since joining there was just under 26% of the Tahltan workforce, now we site at just under 30%. More excitedly we have been able to identify and promote several Tahltan members into level 2 roles, we now have specific talented engineers and level two leadership roles and 10 females into professional roles. We’re seeing progression very quickly with the Tahltan workforce, which is saying it was not happening before.
11. Luis Valente: That is great results from the recruitment with the local communities. Are there any lessons learned that’s relevant to share?
Mark and Ben: I think the overriding philosophy is about reducing the probability of transmission because our surrounding communities are potentially vulnerable. People are flying from all over Canada, we have got a couple of people coming from Newfoundland so we draw from a much bigger pool than Kelowna or Vancouver. Therefore, we must be more diligent than in smaller mine communities. It’s about reducing the probability of transmission; we were pushed about six or seven weeks ago to go back to two and two, and I’m glad we didn’t make that decision because we’ve seen the number of COVID-19 cases increase in BC. We could only contemplate returning to a two and two roster if we could undertake screening of all employees on entry and three or four days prior to departure.
We understand the vulnerability of this mine to an outbreak. Do I think we could manage it? The answer is yes, we can test on-site now which is good, we certainly have the best medical advice we can get in BC through Iridia and we will continue to balance the twin risks of fatigue and transmission towards transmission or lack of transmission.
Until we are comfortable that that risk is nullified or mitigated, and it is a long way from being mitigated, we will continue to manage fatigue. Ben and I will be talking this week about the transition in terms of fatigue, and if I have not got it right, do we need to do a little bit more? Because we are now talking about taking it through winter, which is something we did not quite contemplate when this kicked off in March. That gives a whole different view of transportation because we can’t muster in -25C at the airport, so what are we going to do? What are we going to do when the buses arrive and some of them can muster down the corridor, you cannot do it in the winter? There is a whole bunch of issues that we have got to address, but we will address them. Once again, I have every confidence in the group here and will come to an acceptable balance.
Luis Valente: Excellent! It sounds like you are doing a lot of work to keep the community safe, people safe and continuing production, that’s impressive. It is a lot more than I have heard from other discussions that I have had, so that is great to hear.
Mark and Ben: We continue to use the same phrase about safety, which is that we continue to be uneasy. I do not think we are complacent. Yesterday we had an issue with a young man. He was presenting with flu-like symptoms this morning and we have addressed that. Thankfully, he put his hand up to say, “I’ve got a problem”. I think people are very aware of our expectations of them in terms of reporting it and not coming to work. We are quite comfortable with paying them if they do not come to work, because we’d rather have them stay at home than bring something here. I think it is taken some time for people to understand that, but I think they get it now.
People say they feel safer here than they might be at home; but we cannot be complacent and so have to continue to work together to minimise both transmission and fatigue risk.
About Globe 24-7
Globe 24-7 (Globe) has been conducting human resources consulting and search assignments for local and international mining, power and energy companies around the world for over a decade. Globe has offices in the major markets of the world to ensure consulting assignments and search campaigns are effectively managed at both site and corporate locations and has grown internationally to now service small, mid-tier and large-scale companies through its project recruitment, search, HR consulting and HR Systems divisions.