Mining rises to the challenge of the Coronavirus

No industry will be able to escape the scourge of the Coronavirus. It seems it has already had an impact on every family and every organisation in every corner of the world. 

But few industries have proven their resilience, time and time again, more than mining. From the Ebola crisis in Africa and the boom and bust cycles of markets to the day-to-day minimising of Lost Time Injury Frequency Rates – mining is used to turmoil. We are fighters. 

It’s at moments like these that Boards are tested, and the reputations of leaders made.

And the evidence to date suggests our sector is responding effectively to this unprecedented outbreak. 

Mines are necessarily run with great precision. Rules are followed, and procedures are put in place and respected. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that, where possible, mining companies were quick to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Some of the measures rapidly introduced by mining companies globally include:

  • Immediate introduction of sanitisers and social distancing in queues
  • Increased control of on-site visitors – all visitors required to fill in a comprehensive form which includes questions on their health and travel history in the last few months
  • Closure of communal areas like canteens – staff are encouraged to eat packed lunches in designated offices where possible
  • Changes to FIFO rosters, with some companies incorporating a six weeks on, three weeks off schedule taking into account quarantine requirements 
  • Remote inductions, toolbox talks and training
  • Fitness monitoring increased from twice a week in large groups to daily testing of five people at a time to ensure mine workers are fit to work
  • Selective mining strategies such as focusing on the more profitable assets and closing pits with tighter margins
  • Preserving cash by:
    • reducing variable pay for Executives
    • Limiting overtime
    • Reducing the use of contractors and consultants
    • Looking at alternative funding options, including bank loans

The mining sector plays a pivotal part in the economic stability of many countries. In South Africa alone, it is estimated that the industry employs more than 400,000 people. The impact of disruption to mining on local and national economies cannot be overemphasised. 

As I write this article, Anthony Barich of S&P Market Intelligence reports that the Minerals Council of Australia has accelerated work on ‘national approach to the safe and efficient passage of essential workers and supplies’ in mining operations in response to the ever-tightening border controls. 

We’ve noticed many miners have quickly recognised the need to collaborate, engage and communicate regularly with all stakeholders, to reassure and provide a sense of stability and continuity. 

These stakeholders include staff, local communities, government, unions and chambers of mines. Equally, the CEOs of leading mining companies have been sharing best practice experience and learning from each other.

A shortage of staff due to self-isolation is inevitable. There have been some temporary closures, but where possible mines will be kept open and resources transferred to the most profitable pits to protect cash flow. We anticipate much more of this, with the potential for some temporary mothballing, as the situation persists.   

At present, the consensus is to limit the amount of staff being laid off.  Everyone that can work at home is doing so and others are being deployed to other parts of the business. 

For reasons of social distancing, as well as the relative ease of operations, staff will be transferred from underground to open-pit mines, where possible. 

Mining is doing its bit

Mining is doing its bit for its community stakeholders. S&P describes vigilant controls in sites close to indigenous populations to minimise the potential for devastating cross-infection. The Daily Mail reports BHP’s plans to recruit 1,500 short-term workers for their operations in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

BHP acting Minerals Australia president Edgar Basto is quoted as saying, ‘We are stepping up and providing jobs and contracts. Our suppliers, large and small, play a critical role in supporting our operations. It is a tough time for our communities and the economy, we must look out for each other as we manage through this together.’

Elsewhere, mining equipment manufacturers are making their facilities available for the production of medical equipment. 

The impact on hiring decisions in mining

The unpredictability of the implications of the virus is, unsurprisingly, affecting hiring. While some mining firms are looking to the long term and pushing on regardless, an equal number of hiring decisions are on hold.

But we predict opportunities for some professionals. The need for greater isolation will accelerate the move to remote working and learning, and the adoption of robotics and artificial intelligence. We may be witnessing a catalyst that changes the way our industry operates forever. 

So, there is likely to be an increase in demand for expertise in technology and connectivity.

Crisis management, business continuity specialists and troubleshooters can also expect more calls in future. 

In the immediate term, the market for interim hires may see more buoyancy as miners seek to address immediate needs without a longer-term commitment. 

There will come a time after the present disruption. Our industry will help fuel and drive recovery. It may look different, but it will be more necessary than ever. 

We need to start thinking now about a post-pandemic economy. 

Ana Ribeiro, Business Development