Much of the non-mining press continues to focus on environmental impact in the form of carbon emissions and accidents in mining. Mining operations typically have an enormous impact on their local landscape and environment – this is a characteristic that has caused much of the long-held, visceral social response to the industry. Given the historically poor rate of rehabilitation of mines, local footprint is a concern for the entire mining industry, not just miners themselves.
Accidents have an incredibly high impact locally that immediately make world headlines and drive an overall negative perception of the industry. The recent collapse of the tailings dam at Vale’s Corrego do Feijao mine in Brazil follows the 2015 collapse of the Fundão dam operated by Samarco, a joint venture between BHP and Vale. The impact of these accidents is magnified by transparency – witnesses streamed the dam failure around the world in real-time.
The global concern surrounding tailings dams is accelerating processing innovation, including a strong focus on dry tailings technology and low-footprint mining methods (such as small-scale mining and bioleaching). One approach we have seen is the change in approach to high-consequence, low-probabilities risk; instead of accepting residual risk as low and implementing some preventative controls, some miners are making significant efforts to eliminate these risks through innovation. The industry has shown a remarkable capacity to transform in the past as safety concerns became the strategic priority of most mining companies worldwide. We expect the same transformation to occur again with the use of tailings dams.
At the very least, companies such as Rio Tinto and Antofagasta are employing transparency to their advantage, deliberately releasing data to build trust and demonstrate safety.
“Los Pelambres constantly monitors its tailings deposits and expects to start releasing the monitoring results online early next year. This will provide the community with real time information, helping to build trust between ourselves and our neighbours“Antofagasta press release
Perception, transparency, power
Mining also suffers from perceptions issues at a global level partly due to popular association with fossil fuel’s role in energy generation emissions, and in particular thermal coal.
Social perceptions matter because technology-driven transparency is enabling society to pressure the industry in three key ways:
Socially responsible investing is on the rise. One in every four dollars invested in the US is done so according to ethical guidelines and this is having an impact. For example, a group named The Global 100+ were able to pressure miners such as Glencore to remove further coal investments from long-term strategic plans.
Activist pressure is being driven by the changing nature of finance; broadly sourced funds, such as pension and superannuation funds now have increasing market power (32% of global funds invested). These funds exist to represent their members, who are increasingly dedicated to investing according to ethical guidelines.
“Money talks“Mining Board Member
Investment restrictions for companies not deemed to be socially responsible drives up their cost of capital, as they now compete for only those funds not invested according to ethical guidelines. It also puts pressure on share prices for publicly traded companies, which has a direct impact on shareholder returns and the incentives for senior executives. There are financial stakes, both at a personal and organisational level, in demonstrating socially responsible practices.
“As a CEO, I face this question every day“Mining Company CEO
The second direct impact is the effect of regulation. Driven by community concern, governments globally are becoming less tolerant of an industry that has a direct impact on the environment and local communities. Regulators are increasing their capacity to prevent and punish companies responsible for disasters and reduce capability to operate unsafe mines. The suspension of mining in the Indian state of Goa demonstrates the impact regulatory pressure can have. In some cases, the industry is doing this itself, as through measures such as the ICMM Sustainable Development Framework and the Mining Association of Canada’s Tailings Management Protocol.
The third impact comes from attracting key talent when mining has a poor reputation. Increasingly, younger workers are unwilling to apply for junior mining jobs due to their perception of it as dirty and harmful. Some previously major mining universities around the world are down to single figures in number of mining graduates, reducing the future talent pool for the industry. In Australia’s University of New South Wales, the number of mining engineering students has dropped from 120 in 2014, to just six in 2018.
As the awareness of mental health increases worldwide, the impact of working in industries such as mining is becoming apparent. The combination of remote geographies, potentially dangerous working conditions and inconsistent rostering can leave mining workers vulnerable to mental health concerns.
The development of the fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) model was a response to geographical remoteness of some mine sites. Workers operate on rotational rosters where they spend a block of time onsite, followed by a block of time at home. FIFO workers experience high psychological distress at three times the rate of other workers, inside and outside the mining industry, according to a collaborative research group led by the Curtin University Future of Work Institute. In particular, bullying, long rosters and a lack of contact with family were significant contributors to poor mental health.
“It must be accepted by the industry that there are significant mental health risks associated with FIFO work, and that it is not the fault of the individual employee”Centre for Transformative Work Design
Addressing mental health require a systemic, industry-wide approach to the issue in the same way that physical safety was addressed and radically improved from the 1990s onwards. Changing cultures surrounding mental health will be key, and the success of this effort will be measured in the overall productivity of the industry as well as the reduction of drug and alcohol abuse, mental health conditions and suicides
The mining industry remains a global leader in health and safety awareness and risk mitigation, with mining safety practitioners highly sought after in adjacent industries. Applying a similar methodology to mental health will improve the productivity and wellbeing of the mining workforce and ensure workers return home safely.