Skills and production challenges

LONGWALL mines are facing an escalation of the ongoing skills crisis during another boom in coal prices. Australian Longwall Magazine gathers insights and tactics from leading consultants.
Skills and production challenges Skills and production challenges Skills and production challenges Skills and production challenges Skills and production challenges

The Oaky Creek Complex.

Blair Price

Published in the June 2011 Australian Longwall Magazine

What we asked

1. With the resources boom back on again, how is the skills crisis affecting the longwall sector in your view and what further impacts are you expecting to see? What can consultancies offer to mitigate skills issues?

2. As longwall mines seek to make the most of boom prices, what oversights are commonly made to boost productivity and are there any emerging risks or issues that crews need to be aware of?

Runge operations manager – underground coal David McMillan

1. Manning from pit top to face continues to be an issue, with some reports of shifts not producing due to lack of numbers; and most every operation or feasibility study team looking to hire. Further tightening will occur as projects come to fruition, and as open cuts fight for some of the same labour pool. In the longer term, potential demand for employees in the Gallilee Basin could be particularly large.

Initiatives such as Enterprise Migration Agreements and the National Workforce Development Fund may assist in bringing in and training new employees. However, details are still sketchy, and an overnight solution will not be provided.

In short, consultants can help to ensure the most effective planning, training and utilisation of people and equipment available.

Good strategies for development, gas drainage and longwall scheduling are critical in optimising the use of people and productivity of equipment.

Consultants can assist here with respect to provision of mine planning tools and thorough scenario analysis, sensitivity analysis, risk assessment, help to provide improved certainty and establish contingency planning for when things do go wrong.

Similarly, as our mines get deeper, in general the impact of gas increases. Appropriate exploration, testing and gas management planning is essential to maintaining continuously high productivity.

2. As production pushes occur, safety must come first. As mentioned above, planning and following plans is the best way to avoid productivity and safety risks and to ensure mitigation and/or recovery measures are in place. From a broader business perspective this planning for gas, ventilation, water, ground control, development, maintenance, supplies, manning must be done not just for a few shifts, but ideally for the life of mine.

Palaris Mining managing director John Pala

1. In reality the resources boom never really disappeared, just the rate of increase has steepened. The industry is still rapidly using the current pool of skilled longwall practitioners. We are, however, very fortunate that there are a great many young and enthusiastic people coming through the ranks who are “stepping up” to the challenge and assuming responsibility for newly created roles.

The outstanding performance from mines such as Oaky Creek and Newlands, as well as continued steadily improving performance in many other operations, is testament to the great depth of talent which exists in our industry. Some may say there is a skill shortage and in reality the industry needs to maintain a high level of ongoing training and development; however, when put to the test we always seem to find someone within operations who is prepared to “have a go” and assume new roles.

Consultancies should stick to consulting and specialist services – mining houses are best placed to provide the necessary training and development and on the job support to develop their people. Consultancies are able to supplement this to some degree with regards to retention of corporate knowledge.

2. Typically most longwall crews just want to get on and “cut coal”. Most of what can be done to improve performance and emerging risks rests with management. Most of the issues affecting longwall performance relate to issues not directly related to the actual longwall.

It is no accident that top performing operations are focusing on how to increase their operating hours more so that the productivity rate can be optimised.

Installed capacity is not typically the issue – it is run time. So issues such as ventilation and gas management, conveyors, mine services (water supply, materials, transportation etc) are often the key areas of focus and opportunity to improve output. As such, robust technical and operational support, planning and analysis is required to be made on a whole of mine basis to enable productivity improvement opportunities to be embedded and realised.

Mining Consultancy Services (Australia) managing director Chris Wilkinson

1. The underground coal mining industry is experiencing an acute shortage of skills at present, from skilled operators to experienced and qualified engineers of all disciplines. One of the main issues in future projects and planning for existing mines is the shortage of appropriately skilled and experienced mining engineers. The implications of this are:

  • Projects and essential planning is delayed or not undertaken in sufficient detail. Critical design and influencing factors are sometimes overlooked, which can have significant impacts.
  • Lack of mining experience in new projects culminates in unrealistic production and scheduling expectations which can often result in lower than predicted returns and project delays.

  • As longwall mines become deeper and available coal resources more complex, the need for more precise and accurate planning is becoming increasingly important.Lack of adequate mine planning inevitably causes production and cost issues during operation.

Consultants can provide services in the design and planning of new projects or existing operations where mining companies lack adequate in-house resources to undertake these activities. With over 35 years experience in the mining industry and having gone through numerous resource boom cycles, it is my experience that it is critical utilising this opportunity to conduct adequate independent external studies on new project feasibilities from concept to definitive feasibility level.

This role is one which consultants are in a good position to provide. Existing and future mines’ operations and effectiveness will obviously be impacted by the shortage of operating, supervisory and management skills. This situation is inevitably becoming more critical as the plethora of new mines planned is implemented during the next five to 10 years. MCS’ focus has been to assist the industry in the following ways:

  • We have introduced the ProdMate process based production management system which provides a more effective method of production management by operators, supervisors and management – personnel with less experience can now manage the production process more effectively.
  • We have introduced a training academy which focuses on training comprehension of mining processes and methods, which has already been used effectively by many of our clients to up-skill their staff and workforce.

2. Since the majority of coal in longwall mines is produced from the longwall, the implications of increased production on development requirements is often overlooked. As mines get deeper and conditions more challenging, development rates become even more under strain.

In order to achieve quick production increases the medium to long-term impacts of decisions are often overlooked, particularly related to gas drainage, infrastructure and mining sequence. Adherence to good standards has always been a key criterion for safe and high productive mining. Focus on adherence to face alignment, horizon control and creep management in the longwall should always be a priority, irrespective of production expectations.

SCT Operations managing director Winton Gale

1. A major issue is the increasing amount of work for a relatively constant pool of expertise. Consultancies are assisting with planning, feasibility as well as onsite assistance, however many are stretched and it is difficult to provide the level of assistance required. Our company is increasing our staff base, however it takes time to train and develop their capability. There is likely to be a time lag in providing more skilled personnel into the industry.

2. The use of clear and rigorous methods of work and peer review of processes prior to implementation are good systems to limit the oversights. However, with time constraints on personnel on sites these processes can be fast tracked. Clear and inclusive processes need to be used which involve all levels of management, technical services and the operators of the equipment.

Marston International – A Golder Associates company – executive mining consultant Neil Fraser

1. In the short to medium term, longwall operations will continue to be impacted by a shortage of engineers with the experience and skills to prepare mine designs and panel layouts that produce maximum resource recovery and minimise geological and operational risk.

By using mining consultancies with experienced multidisciplinary teams, it is possible to ensure that all parameters such as geological hazards, rock mechanical properties, hydrology, coal seam gas, spontaneous combustion, ventilation, subsidence and product quality are fully addressed at the planning stage. Personnel with many of these disciplines are not generally employed at mining operations.

This will ensure that that a longwall operation is able to achieve maximum resource recovery while maintaining optimum productivity and allowing operations personnel to focus their time and expertise on running the mine.

2. The current high commodity prices are providing significant incentive for mining operators to fast track expansion and development of existing mines and develop new operations. This can potentially introduce increased risk in a number of areas.

Inadequate resource evaluation prior to planning and development can result in geological hazards being overlooked and insufficient testing for critical design parameters. Fast tracking of pre-feasibility and feasibility studies can result in sub-optimal designs and layouts and poor equipment selection.

Attempts to boost productivity under these circumstances can result in increased risk of encountering poor ground conditions, operating equipment outside of its design envelope or producing a sub-standard product. Fast tracked changes to increase productivity also risk the introduction of insufficiently trained longwall operators into an inadequately known operating environment.

A thorough understanding of geology, hydrology, coal seam gas content, rock mechanical properties and spontaneous combustion propensity is required for mine planning, equipment selection and accurate financial modelling. Using equipment under conditions for which it was not designed significantly reduces productivity and increases cost and operational risks. Mining consultancies can effectively and efficiently monitor mining conditions and mining practices and can ensure risk is minimised and optimum productivity is maintained.

Snowden Mining Industry Consultants market sector leader – eastern region David Arnott

1. The skills crisis has been continuous in the resource industry for a period of years. It is the product of demand outstripping supply, consequently many within the longwall sector and other areas of the coal and greater mining industry are suffering by not being able to fill necessary employment positions with the requisite skills to achieve projected production demands. The requirement for skilled workers may have dipped during the recent GFC but it has never stopped.

Unfortunately government has not acted proactively, with the stimulated resources market missing the boat in regard to earlier attraction of secondary students undertaking further education or training that would lead directly to employment within the mining industry.

Industry associations (such as the AusIMM) are engaging with secondary schools to promote the advantages of mining careers. Although laudable, this is not a quick fix to a long-term problem, yet is necessary to ensure the longevity and success of this vibrant and economically important industry.

One of the impacts of this under supply of skilled personnel appears as a pricing war between competing parts of the industry. Employers are offering more depth and a variety of benefits in salary packaging in an attempt to attract candidates. With a continuing decline in “learned” professionals as the population ages, businesses will need to show a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining personnel. At some point it needs to encompass more than just increased financial returns to the employee.

Snowden expects to see a continued disproportionate supply and demand of technical professionals globally over the coming decade. While some organisations are just offering more money to attract candidates to deal with a localised shortage of skilled personnel, Snowden have a different perspective to approaching the problem.

Snowden as part of the wider Downer EDI Group of companies is looking to develop careers of significance for personnel. This involves partnering between management and staff to firstly develop strategies that not only grow the business but also the individual through continued professional development.

Opportunities to work with different business units both technically and globally provides not only variety within the work environment (which is one of the main reasons people are attracted to this style of employer), but also develops a greater breadth of skills.

For example Snowden employs a small number of undergraduate engineers, matching them to leading industry professionals for short but intensive periods of focused mentoring. Graduate programs are also being developed in partnership arrangements with other business units such as Downer Mining and Downer Blasting Services to provide a wider breadth of experience for new professionals with a vision of retaining employees for long-term “value-added” careers.

2. Typically when faced with increased value in commodity prices producers will attempt to increase production to take advantage of elevated market price. Locked pricing contracts tend to negate the “must happen now” mentality. Where producers may be selling on spot price a perception of increased production can occur through reduction in maintenance schedules by keeping equipment operating for longer periods, yet this can have disastrous consequences and increased risk of damage to plant and longer downtime for the repair than the initial maintenance would have required.

Other ways of “quick-fix” increased production may be through reduction of ground control programs, to keep mining rates high. Mining crews need to recognise that such requests only place the workforce at risk and jeopardise the safety of those working in the operating environment.

Cutting corners doesn’t increase production. Proper training of personnel,a strong understanding of the local geological conditions, appropriate mine design and equipment selection is where companies see productivity gains made. Proactive rather than reactive planning is the key to success.