The most powerful tool on any mine site is the human brain.
What if, before spending millions of dollars on new equipment or technologies to create ‘mines of the future’, we first look at optimising the human element?
And I don’t just mean systems to keep people out of harm’s way, but fundamentally adjust processes and work patterns to suit individual’s physical condition and mental strengths?
If we did it right, the productivity and financial wins could be huge.
My musings on this subject recently led me to Gus Minor, chief innovation officer at safety software and tech development company, Sofvie Inc.
Minor has a fairly unique vantage point on human performance given that he has worked as a mine superintendent, safety software developer and been a semi-professional athlete (goals, right?!), and I wanted to get his thoughts on the matter.
“Growing up in northern Ontario, I was introduced to the safety aspect of mining and the importance of it at a young age,” he said. “When I was five years old, I lost an uncle in a mining accident and that had a huge ripple effect on my family and the local community.”
Having started his first business with a friend at the age of 16 doing computer repairs, Minor eventually found his way into the technology sector.
“I ended up creating a few companies and, when I was 30, I decided I was going to try something different,” he said. “I sold those companies and started working with a former client, Technica Mining. I went straight in on the jackleg doing reconditioning work.”
Minor’s remit was to learn as much as possible about mining and then eventually channel that knowledge and experience into closing some of the gaps in the company’s safety systems.
“I did six or seven years of straight mining while still being connected to the technology side,” Minor explained. “I got to the point where I was a superintendent, then started on the path of digitising the safety systems we had in place.”
Minor has always had a keen interest in sport including weightlifting, motocross racing and hockey. By the time he went to work in mining, he was also competing on the international Strongman circuit.
“I realised was I was going to the gym and warming up before doing anything strenuous because I didn’t want to get hurt,” he said. “But when it came to my work, I just arrived on site and was ready to go. I would never do that when it came to sport, so why would I do that at work?
“I started having those conversations with my co-workers. We’d spend time getting primed to complete our work so that we wouldn’t get stuck with injuries from either ergonomics or dealing with cold or heat in the workplace. So we could go home in the same condition as we came in, because we all wanted to do things outside of work too.
“It becomes an issue if we don’t take care of ourselves throughout the workday; we get home and we’re just too sore or fatigued from the activities we performed, and that compounds over time.”
While Minor no longer works on the tools, he has carried that experience and ethos with him to every role since, including Sofvie, to create a physical environment that nurtures staff wellbeing.
“One of the first things we did when setting up Sofvie’s office space was to create a decompression room,” he explained.
“It’s a technology-free room where staff can go and relax, meditate, pray or just collect their thoughts. There’s music playing, recharge lamps for people who are deprived of sunlight, and plants.
We also built a facility where staff could exercise. It has a gym, a foosball table, ping pong, things like that to help break up the monotony of sitting at a desk all day.
“What most people don’t realise is that, from a musculoskeletal standpoint, sitting at a desk all day is just as strenuous as the work that we do underground.
“The idea is to give people time and space to recover at work rather than recovering after work in their family time.”
Changing the status quo
I found Minor’s perspective refreshing and asked if many team leaders or companies take a similar approach.
“Over the past 10 years I’ve seen a shift,” he replied. “Some of it has come to light recently with different risk management approaches and methodologies around how we execute work but, for the most part, the mining industry is still like an old boys’ club.
“When you’re working on site, the results are very visible and its quite ego driven. It’s rewarding work but, at the same time, that reward is almost like a drug.
“However, if you push too hard without doing proper preparation and planning or take shortcuts, that’s when people get hurt. It can actually injure productivity rather than fostering it.”
There’s also a huge generational gap in mining. Many rough and tough old-school miners have a mindset of ‘get the work done, whatever it takes’. Whereas many younger miners have more a holistic approach to how they work, because they want a long and fulfilling career.
The problem is, there aren’t many people in the middle helping to unify those two camps.
Minor estimates that today, over 50% of the mining workforce are millennials or younger. These people want to leverage new technologies to work faster, have different skillsets to older generations, and also different expectations around communication.
“At Sofvie, we realised that we needed tools to satisfy generations that are coming into the workforce, to enable them to be better producers, and to prepare the industry for it. Because, for the most part, the mining industry is not entirely prepared to take on that workforce,” Minor added.
“There’s been a lot of technology advancements on equipment, on sensors and machinery… to keep people away from the riskier areas, but when it comes to developing people and giving them tools to excel and communicate better, there’s definitely a gap in the industry.”
Talk, listen, learn
Given the link between staff wellbeing and performance, are there any small changes managers could make that would make a big difference to their teams? I asked.
“Ask for feedback, listen to it and act upon it,” Minor said. “Every time I’ve opened up the offer for feedback, there’s hesitation. But it’s incredible what delivery on requests can do for team confidence.
“For example, I worked on one mining project where we were using a new type of equipment. It hadn’t had a lot of testing and we were part of the R&D process.
“We were getting some complaints and people were driving into walls. After I opened up the opportunity for feedback, we realised that there was a lot of mist in the work area and it was impairing operator’s vision.
“By the time the wipers were engaging it was too late, and someone said, almost as a joke ‘If we can get squeegees and Windex for our vehicles, we probably wouldn’t hit the walls’.
“The next day, I put those in every vehicle. No one could believe it. And then the floodgates opened with requests.
“Everybody deserves to have a safe and proper workplace.
“No matter how high-risk the environment, you can still offer a high-quality workplace to your team, whether it’s through housekeeping, or putting controls in place to end individual risk in the workplace.
“Also, get your team the right tools. One of the first things I learnt being underground, was that there are 150 uses for a miners’ wrench, from a lever to a weight, a wedge…
“Everyone wants to produce and be proud of the work they’ve done. If they don’t have the right tool they will manipulate other tools to achieve the work, and that can bring on injuries and incidents.
“If someone’s asking for something and there’s good reason for it, make sure they’re understood and are heard, because it doesn’t take very much for the feedback to stop.”
Trust through systems thinking
Which brought the conversation around to trust.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about creating trust, between host communities and mining companies, investors and executives… but the need for trust extends right down to the site level too. Operators and miners need to be able to trust their team leaders, and vice versa.
“One way to create that is through processes and systems,” said Minor. “People crave structure and consistency. Whenever there’s a break in that structure that’s when innovative thinking comes in, whether positive or negative.
“What I’ve found is that, if you can stay true to the processes you have in place, the less likely you are to have ripple effects.
“In mining, because people are often trying to produce at all costs using quick wins, processes can get ignored. In any mechanical or logic-based system, if you have a process that’s numbered from 1-10, and you take out step number 3, then step 4 does not happen. It’s exactly the same on site.
“In the mining industry, that’s where that balance of old school/new school comes into play.
“If the workforce you’ve got is very dependent on systems i.e., newer generations who are taught coding and process thinking in school, they’re less likely to take shortcuts because they understand the impacts of skipping steps.
“When people do not follow systems and processes, or they try to take shortcuts and a failure occurs, then they try to patch that up and that’s when you see delays in production.”
Because there’s too much thinking on the fly? I asked.
“Yeah, you’re no longer being proactive and you’re not communicating effectively,” Minor replied. “If 90% of your day is spent problem solving then production has gone out the window.
“It’s better to maintain integrity with known systems that work. And it’s not just digital systems or technology, we’re talking about overall operational systems.”
If we look at industries that have franchised, mining is probably the most inconsistent.
The intent and demand are consistent, but not one mine operates in the same way, even within mining companies. They all manage people differently and have different systems in place.
“It’s like constantly doing R&D at every single mine,” explained Minor. “Whereas when you look at industries like manufacturing, everything runs in sequence, it’s very process-driven and automatable because the steps are clear.
“Once you identify all the steps, and you know where you’re going, then you can work on automating processes and getting quicker. But if the steps are different every day, you can’t automate them.”
Despite there being variables in each and every mining operation driven, primarily, by heterogeneity in orebodies, many processes on site and off are very similar or identical. And that creates an opportunity to build systems.
“The tricky thing I’ve found with automating equipment, is that everybody thinks they’re better than the equipment,” said Minor, with a wry smile. “People often override systems to try and get things done quicker.
“I think if we practice more systems-based leadership and accountability-based leadership in mining, we will see great advancements. It’s not enough to have systems there, they need to be used and promoted at every level of an organisation.”
“If the mining sector is going to produce the materials that it needs to over the next 5/10/15 years then we need to find more efficient ways to do that without burning people out.”
Sensors for machines. Sensors for people
The team at Sofvie has been working on developing standardised digital tools for mine workforces that improve communication and breakdown work siloes, and they’ve also been collaborating with a wearable technology provider to investigate and mitigate stress in the workplace.
“We’re looking at every angle we can to make people more efficient,” said Minor. “We started looking at how to prevent or manage heat exhaustion. The deeper we mine, the more regular it becomes, and it can have huge health impacts.
“Through that work, I realised that maybe we don’t need to identify what type of stress it is, we just need to know there’s a stress. If there’s stress on a human body it will affect one of two things: the physical or mental integrity of the individual.
“We’re looking at leveraging technology to identify stressors, so that managers can have conversations and either reassign people to a different type of work, or ask them to take a day off and recover.
“Once you get to the point where you can identify a stressor like heat or cold, you’ve most likely gone too far down the line of total exhaustion and there’s repair to do. The recovery time will be longer.”
Biometric monitoring systems are just one way that sensor technology can be used to enhance, not just people’s performance at work, but their entire quality of life.
“With sensors, we know when vehicles are going to fail and we can implement preventative maintenance,” said Minor. “Where is all that stuff for the human being?”
It’s a good point.
If our conveyors and trucks are in perfect shape, we’re doing everything possible to eliminate costs to the organisation through equipment downtime, but there’s not much keeping people going other than the pat on the back… well, then there’s a big opportunity there.
Again, it all comes back to systems and processes: develop consistencies and standardise expectations from everyone, not just the workforce but at every layer of the organisation.
Fine tune the engine and we could see exponential results.
It could also alleviate a significant amount of stress on staff and encourage more people to join the industry.
“I’ve always said that mining is for everybody,” said Minor. “It requires every talent from every field that you can possibly think of to formulate a mining team.
“It doesn’t matter what career path you are looking at, there’s a need for that in mining, which is very exciting.”
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