ENVIRONMENT

The very model of a modern mining professional

THE COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pick-up of automation on mine sites as skill shortages become more acute, according to Accenture’s <i>The acceleration of mining transformation</i> report.

There will have to be a reconfiguration of mine plans taking into account the growing use of automation and remote operations.

There will have to be a reconfiguration of mine plans taking into account the growing use of automation and remote operations.

Accenture head of resources David Burns said there would have to be a reconfiguration of mine plans taking into account the growing use of automation and remote operations.

"Before the pandemic, drones were already carrying out pit surveillance and autonomous trucks were hauling ore," he told Australia's Mining Monthly.

"COVID-19 has been pushing companies to take digital transformation further by devising new ways to gain efficiencies at a time when fewer workers can be on-site.

"Despite the vast challenges, it is clear that COVID-19 has also unlocked new opportunities and moved up the timeline for existing transformation efforts."

Burns said trucks that had full situational awareness and decision-making autonomy would be key to establishing fully autonomous and remote mine sites post-pandemic.

"Humans will still be needed to operate the trucks, but can do this from a control centre, rather than on-site," he said.

"For this to happen, all fixed and mobile equipment will need to be connected and able to exchange signals and talk to each other.

"As always, the safety of all persons and equipment remains parallel. Once this can be met, the next challenge rests on the mining industry's chief human resources officers and digital officers to reimagine their strategy for the post-pandemic era and explore new ways to re-organise and redesign their workforce, with new digital processes at the heart of that transformation."

 Tiered structure

Burns predicted a tiered working structure would emerge as the industry became increasingly digitalised, creating a defined separation of operations.

"The future mining workforce will work from either 'operational sites' that will become lean hubs; 'near sites' that will drive remote-centre operations; or the 'anywhere office', that will have enough intelligence and operational fluidity for efficient remote working," he said.

"The majority of on-site roles in the mining sector are typically mechanical in nature, relying on maintenance workers, machine operators and engineers handling heavy mining machinery and vehicles."

The World Economic Forum 2020 jobs report found 67% of repetitive and manual tasks, such as information and data processing, and about 60% of tasks involving physical labour would become automated.

On the other hand, the report said the top-two emerging roles that would be critical to the future of the mining industry were artificial intelligence and machine learning specialists and process-automation specialists.

"These industry shifts are gathering pace but are yet to hit the industry innovation tipping point," Burns said.

"Accordingly, skilled operational crews will remain vitally important onsite, both now and for expertly overseeing operations of the future."

With social distancing set to be a norm for some time, industry chief human resources officers are analysing roles and identifying which ones do not need to be located at the site.

"Questions around who needs to be physically present and what roles can support the business virtually are top of mind for executives, as is identifying any peripheral activities that could be discontinued," Burns said.

"With COVID, there are a lot of restrictions and protocols to implement to maintain the safety, health and well-being of employees.

"This extends to the implementation of tech advances and processes. Any new way of working always requires a bedding in period, but the pandemic has accelerated the shift and made it a priority, so any issues should be fleeting."

Modern mining professional

Burns said technical talent with experience in high-capital industrial settings had always been highly valued in the industry and would continue to be.

"Now, however, environmental, social and governance goals are reshaping the employee profile towards new types of talent, such as climate scientists, and talent that can help build strategies to help mining thrive in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous," he said.

"Companies should provide both reactive individual training and proactive large-scale training, to create as many productive upskilling opportunities as possible.

"This will facilitate the necessary diversification of modern mining roles."

Burns cites examples of this such as a mechanic applying AI/ML technology to predict machinery failure and perform preventative repairs; a mining vehicle operator needing to remotely oversee multiple pieces of autonomous machinery; and mining engineers having to use technology to plan and design drill sites.

"At the same time, considerations for safeguarding employees' mental health in what is a hugely challenging industry, in that respect, has never been more top of mind," he said.

"Accordingly, it will be necessary for the modern mining professional to be emotionally intelligent, with the communications skills to safeguard remote working employees."

Diversity

Burns believes developing the profile of the mining industry by bringing in talent from non-traditional backgrounds and alternative skillsets will elicit change.

"Conquering this long-standing diversity challenge though, will take comprehensive industry shifts away from rigid processes," he said.

"Adopting flexible and remote work policies, for example, will aid progress by attracting greater diversity, including higher female participation, a group that has historically been underrepresented in the industry.

"People with families or other responsibilities, or health-related restrictions and disabilities, will also have a greater incentive to join the newly flexible and inclusive mining industry workforce."

Burns said one of the greatest benefits of having a diverse workforce was the wealth of life experience, professional experience, skillsets and ideas that a group of people from varied backgrounds could bring.

"Diversity inherently enables greater empathy and emotional intelligence, as people learn from each other and solve problems together," he said.

"In order to leverage this benefit, mining companies must create an environment that is not only flexible, but open, sustainability-focused, community-centric, and transparent.

"Companies should demonstrate that a new working culture is not just for the pandemic era. It's here to stay."

Remote working

Burns said team working was a huge benefit of being on-site, or indeed, operating a traditional office-based work model in general.

"Where possible, the flexibility of hybrid work models should be utilised to bring teams together where complex challenges are concerned and group thinking is needed," he said.

"Flexible structures still allow for teams to tailor their approach towards what works best for them, as well as cater to the issues at hand."

Burns said full time remote working had been found to be unsustainable.

"The significant industry challenge for effective hybrid working is establishing a framework that ensures employees aren't working longer hours, sleeping less or feeling burned out," he said.

"The physical and mental wellbeing of employees has always been the single most important consideration of the industry.

"The pandemic has led to an increase in mental health issues as employees respond to the isolation and pressures of remote work, requiring leaders to demonstrate greater empathy and soft skills."

Accenture's research suggests leaders of companies in the mining, metals and energy sector have been falling short in helping workers feel safe when raising concerns about mental health issues.

"Companies must change that perception fast," Burns said.

"As we move into a post-COVID world and employees adjust to a hybrid work model, dividing their time between working at home and in an office or on or off a mine site, new rules of interaction and engagement could further exacerbate mental health issues.

"It's imperative that companies continue to provide ongoing support for employees' physical and mental well-being."

Leadership

The World Economic Forum 2020 jobs report lists leadership and social influence as the top attributes mining companies' reskilling or upskilling programs are focused on.

"As managers move from managing manual workers to analysing data and managing remote teams, they will also require superior communication skills and project and change management experience," Burns said.

"Mining industry workers should be perpetually supported in-role, through mentoring and reverse-mentoring schemes.

"Mining companies can enhance long-tenured workers' digital knowledge by pairing them with young colleagues.

"Similarly, young colleagues can gain industry knowledge from the long-tenured workers they are paired with. Such schemes can help mitigate the potentially negative impact of virtual learning and remote working on mental health by connecting employees in a constructive way."

 

A growing series of reports, each focused on a key discussion point for the mining sector, brought to you by the Mining Monthly Intelligence team.

A growing series of reports, each focused on a key discussion point for the mining sector, brought to you by the Mining Monthly Intelligence team.

editions

Mining Magazine Intelligence Exploration Report 2024 (feat. Opaxe data)

A comprehensive review of exploration trends and technologies, highlighting the best intercepts and discoveries and the latest initial resource estimates.

editions

Mining Magazine Intelligence Future Fleets Report 2024

The report paints a picture of the equipment landscape and includes detailed profiles of mines that are employing these fleets

editions

Mining Magazine Intelligence Digitalisation Report 2023

An in-depth review of operations that use digitalisation technology to drive improvements across all areas of mining production

editions

Mining Magazine Intelligence Automation Report 2023

An in-depth review of operations using autonomous solutions in every region and sector, including analysis of the factors driving investment decisions