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Northern mining companies adapting to COVID-19 threat

Workplace Safety North providing expertise and assistance to slow the spread

The provincewide spread of the COVID-19 virus has many mining companies feeling their way through procedures and protocols of how to maintain production while keeping workers free of infection.

During the second week of March, as the number of positive cases in Ontario began to grow, Mike Parent, the vice-president of prevention services at Workplace Safety North, began fielding calls from companies, mostly in mining, that didn’t have pandemic policies and procedures in place and needed assistance.

“Not too many firms were equipped to deal with a pandemic of this nature,” said Parent, who worked as a paramedic and an underground miner before moving into the health and safety field with KGHM International.

In talking with mining companies, he finds most have been very progressive in terms of managing risk and developing best practices on social distancing among their workers and sanitizing the workplace.

Parent said mining companies are mandated to put risk assessment programs in place.

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“They’re pretty good at identifying a new hazard, a new risk, and dealing with it. But for other firms, really, it’s the practice of promoting social distancing as much as possible, and the proper hygienic controls in place; everything from sanitizing the workplace to encouraging individuals to wash and sanitize frequently, and cough into their elbows.”

Workplace Safety North was formed in 2010 as an amalgamation of three health and safety associations.

The North Bay-headquartered organization is providing assistance with planning and in distributing a pandemic check sheet.

Some mining companies he’s spoken with have made simple and subtle changes, such as breaking up the larger pre-shift safety meetings into smaller groups, in making sure to maintain minimal distances between employees to prevent infection.

For travel underground, by means of mobile personnel carriers or in the mine cage, companies are reducing the number of people per trip to allow for more personal space among employees.

Once below ground, Parent said workers are usually sufficiently spread out to avoid coming in close contact.

“Having been a miner, the risk is really to get underground. Once you’re underground most employees jump on a haulage truck or a drill or scoop tram and they’re on their own for the better part of a shift.

“Once they’re in their workplace, they’re probably in the safest place in the world as far as risk of infection.”

Companies are promoting strong health and hygiene practices, ensuring people wash and sanitize their hands, and cough or sneeze into elbows.

Seismic events could pose a problem since workers would be required to gather in a refuge station.

“There could be a variety of emergencies like a fire or seismic event that would cause workers to huddle,” said Parent.

He suspects that’s partly why some countries are locking down mining operations to slow the spread of the virus.

The Québec government ordered all non-essential businesses to close, prompting mines in western part of the province to be placed on temporary care and maintenance.

In Ontario, the government issued a similar statement, but mining has been designated an essential business and companies can continue to operate at their discretion.

Parent expressed optimism that the efforts by Ottawa and Queen’s Park will help ‘flatten the curve.’

“I do want to see our economy continue even if it’s at a crawl, so I hope it doesn’t come to this.”

Some mining companies with locally residing workforces are continuing operations, while some of the more remote operations – relying on fly-in/fly-out workers and contractors – are suspending production, leaving only a skeleton staff to monitor tailings ponds during spring runoff, provide site security, and to maintain buildings and infrastructure.

Parent acknowledged the health risks are higher at remote sites with camp accommodations, due to the special precautions that must be taken around cleaning and sanitizing common areas like cafeterias, lounges and fitness centres.

These companies, he said, have been screening their more transient workers, reporting back to their employers, in looking for the four key COVID-19 symptoms of fever, difficulty breathing, cough, and fatigue.

But it doesn’t always work.

One employee of Kirkland Lake Gold showed up for work on March 12 at the Detour Lake mine, north of Cochrane, symptom-free and began showing signs of the virus two days later.

The employee was isolated, removed from the site, and received a positive test more than a week later.

In learning how other hard-hit countries like China, Italy and Spain have tackled the COVID-19 crisis, Parent said Canada has learned a lot in promoting social distancing, closing gathering places like restaurants and theatres, while still allowing a segment of population to physically go to work.

He had high praise for the proactive moves by the federal and provincial governments.

“The leadership’s been pretty great as far as interventions early. Cancelling school after the March break for two weeks seemed drastic by some,but when you look at the rationale behind it, if people go away and come back with this virus, they may not develop it until six or seven days later, which could happen in the classroom or workplace.”

He believes that will pay dividends down the road in lessening the impact on communities and workplaces.