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'We need to do a better job' promoting sector, say mining execs

Industry panel discusses changing face of mining during 2023 Mining Health and Safety Conference
Panellists discuss the future of mining during Workplace Safety North's Mining Health and Safety Conference on April 19.

As mining companies brainstorm ideas on how to attract new workers to the industry, one thing is clear: the sector has an image problem.

“People want jobs that are historically different than what the mining industry would portray,” said Don Duval, the CEO of Sudbury’s NORCAT.

In consultations with mining executives in recent years, Duval said discussions have increasingly turned to how companies can use cutting-edge technology — not to boost productivity and performance, but how to entice top talent to come work for them.

Consider two scenarios, he proposed.

In the first, an employee is flown in to a remote mining camp for a two-week stint where they operate a load-haul-dump truck underground, for 12 hours a day, before flying out for a week off.

In the second, that employee operates the same vehicle using teleremote technology from the comfort of their local downtown coffee shop.

“What’s fascinating… money is no longer the primary driver,” Duval said. “That individual will sacrifice compensation for the latter job of using that technology.

Duval was speaking as part of an industry panel during Workplace Safety North’s 2023 Mining Health and Safety Conference in Sudbury, which took place April 18-20 at the Holiday Inn.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the three-day conference featured guest speakers, technical presentations and a tradeshow, all revolving around the theme of 'Evolution of Mining Safety: Past Reflections and Future Innovations.’

In changing the world’s perception of mining, it’s up to the industry to advocate for itself, noted Samatha Espley, but it’s a “challenge” to push back against the enduring negativity surrounding the sector.

The mining engineer said the exciting and changing nature of the industry, and the feeling that she’s part of a family, are what have kept her in the industry for more than 30 years. And she believes those aspects will appeal to younger generations, too.

But the industry has to earn the confidence of younger workers who aren’t willing to sacrifice strongly held values for just any employer.

They need to feel supported, trusted, and safe, and the mining industry must do better to get the message across that they share these values, she said.

“When we say we care about the environment? Care about the environment. When we say we care about people? Care. Show that you care,” said Espley, who’s currently a mining advisor with the engineering firm Stantec.

“It's the actions you take that are going to make the trust with the communities where you operate, and that is a fundamental for licence to operate. We need to listen and work together in order to supply the metals that are required for climate change that is happening today.”

Younger generations also prioritize their mental health and take mental wellness more seriously, according to Keith Hanson, the superintendent of occupational health and wellness for IAMGOLD.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of young people say work is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing, he said, and 36 per cent will leave for another job that has better mental health benefits.

Mining companies that want to recruit young workers need to be mindful of this, Hanson said.

That involves creating “psychological safety” within the companies so workers feel comfortable opening up about mental health issues they may be experiencing. He encouraged companies to stop talking and start listening.

“We really need to be addressing mental health in a normalized, structured way in our workplaces,” said Hanson, “and we need to be asking our young people what are the reasons that their mental health is being affected and listening to them, their stories about what’s going on, and what do we need to be doing.”

Frank Demers, Vale’s head of Ontario Mines, admitted that solving the recruitment issue — and how to train new employees adequately — are the kinds of things that keep him up at night.

He believes part of the answer lies in educating youth at a younger age — at the secondary and elementary school levels — to get the message out earlier about the myriad career pathways mining can offer.

From electrician to engineer to maintenance technician to management, “there’s a multitude of opportunities that people don't understand, and we need to do a better job of promoting the mining industry and showing people what choices exist in front of them.”

Panellists referenced some unique initiatives underway.

Espley spoke of a joint project between Science North and the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) on the development of a mining-themed videogame that will be available as part of the curriculum for kids in Kindergarten to Grade 12.

The idea is that, by “gamifying” learning about the industry, they can spark interest in kids early on and encourage them to follow a career in mining.

“We’re trying to promote the mining industry right through the curriculums in the schools across Canada,” said Espley, who serves as vice-chair of the CIM’s Health and Safety Society.

“So this is an advocacy role that we’re playing, just really trying to get a better image of our industry out to society at large.”

Duval noted that NORCAT will soon be testing a new diagnostic tool that helps detect cognitive disorders, such as depression, anxiety or fatigue, in workers.

Created with intellectual property developed at Cambridge University, he said the gaming application is accessed via tablet and employs techniques used by psychiatrists and psychologists over the last three decades.

The company that developed it is now looking to deploy it daily at worksites to determine if employees are fit for duty.

After an employee accesses the tool, it will be able to detect anomalies in an employee's behaviour that can determine if they’re able to do their jobs safely. It then alerts the supervisor to go speak to that employee.

Duval believes it’s only a matter of time before this type of tech is rolled out at workplaces on a wider scale.

“There’s going to be a broader adoption of these technologies to ensure that workers are safe, they’re productive, and their colleagues are safe and productive as well,” Duval predicted.