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FIFO Gold Mining in the COVID-19 Era

Gold mining has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this has led to fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers having mercurial working patterns and schedules. FIFO has long been a key ingredient to the development of Canada and Australia’s extractive industries, but the pandemic has brought up issues that may pose challenges to the FIFO model.

FIFO operations provide lucrative employment opportunities with good income and job stability. 1​ But the harsh nature of FIFO employment is not suitable for everyone, and there has historically been a high turnover rate which hampers productivity and mining output. There have been concerns about employee fatigue from the FIFO lifestyle, since workers are physically separated from their family and loved ones during their shifts.

Western Australia contributes 14% of the total Australian Gross Domestic Product, and its economy is primarily driven by agriculture and resource extraction. 2​ The extractive industry makes up 80 per cent of the state’s total exports. 3​ But many mines in Western Australia are far away from the major metropolitan areas, making FIFO operations an integral part of the Australian mining industry. The procedure involves flying miners out from metropolitan regions such as Perth to inland gold mining towns. In Canada, FIFO operations bring miners from cities like Calgary and Toronto to the cold tundra of the Yukon, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. Many mine developers opt to fly in skilled workers from large cities or developed mining towns for intensive work periods of seven to fourteen days, instead of constructing new “single industry” towns at higher costs. 4​ Long roster patterns with weeks of work at the mine mean that more time is spent away in remote mining communities, and adaptation is a challenge for many miners. 5

For many mining employees, skills development and a positive workplace culture were especially valued, but an appropriately rostered shift was considered to be the single most impactful issue to them. Exploratory studies have found that the turnover rate was lower in operations with shorter rosters. 6​ To mitigate long-term stress from FIFO employment, it has been suggested that operators look to provide suitable residential facilities near mining sites and have a well-planned mix of FIFO arrangements. 7

The COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced new obstacles to the FIFO model, as mining operators have to manage the health of their employees to prevent a spread of the virus at mining sites. Restrictions in Australian interstate travel have already seen 6,000 interstate workers relocate to Perth. 8,000 skilled workers may need to be shifted to support the state’s resource industry in the next 18 months. Workforce modelling by the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia has predicted hot demand for skilled tradesmen for the duration of one and a half years. 8​ The displacement of workers through FIFO operations, coupled with their extended rosters, will inevitably have a detrimental effect on miners’ wellbeing. 9

Mining operators must ensure that their employees stay in good health. Besides the miners’ psychological health, the processing of orebodies must also attain non-toxic outcomes that do not pollute the environment or harm the physical health of the people in mining communities. For gold mining companies, Clean Mining has a cyanide-free and mercury-free gold recovery reagent with fast reaction kinetics that will allow for mining and gold processing to be carried out safely, sustainably, and efficiently. Over time, this may reduce the resources and manpower required for gold processing to be carried out.

FIFO may be a model that drives the economy of mining regions like Western Australia, but the rhythm of roster shifts may induce stress in many individuals. New COVID-19 travel restrictions have the potential to exacerbate existing conditions, and operators may want to look to assist employees during the pandemic period. A conducive working environment can reduce employee burnout and high turnover rates, which will only benefit mining operators in the long run.

 

Clean Mining is part of the Clean Earth Technologies group.

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[1] ​Fiona Mckenzie, Fiona Haslam Mckenzie, and Aileen Hoath, “Fly-In/Fly-Out, Flexibility and the Future: Does Becoming a Regional FIFO Source Community Present Opportunity or Burden?,” ​Geographical Research​ 52, no. 4 (March 2014): pp. 430-441, https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-5871.12080.

[2] ​Fiona Haslam Mckenzie, “Long Distance Commuting: A Tool to Mitigate the Impacts of the Resources Industries Boom and Bust Cycle?,” ​Land Use Policy​ 93 (2020): p. 103932, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.03.045.

[3] ​Pippa Stevens, “Gold Has ‘Immunity’ to Coronavirus, Goldman Says,” March 2, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/02/gold-has-immunity-to-coronavirus-goldman-says.html.

[4] ​A.D.S. Gillies, G.D. Just and H.W. Wu, The success of fly-in fly-out Australian mining operations, Proceedings, Second Gold Forum on Technology and Practice, The AusIMM, Melbourne, April 1991, pp 391-397​.

[5] ​Richard Beach and David Cliff, “Turnover and FIFO Operations: Some Facts, Opinions and Theories,” ​The AusIMM Bulletin​, no. 5 (2003): p. 64-65.

[6] ​Ruth Beach, David Brereton, and David Cliff, ​Workforce Turnover in FIFO Mining Operations in Australia: an Exploratory Study: a Research Report​ (Brisbane, Qld: Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Qld., 2003).

[7] ​Fiona M. Haslam Mckenzie and Aileen Hoath, “The Socio-Economic Impact of Mine Industry Commuting Labour Force on Source Communities,” ​Resources Policy​ 42 (2014): pp. 45-52, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2014.09.002.

[8] Hamish Hastie, “Skills-Hungry Miners Predict 8000 More Workers Needed in WA over next 18 Months,” August 10, 2020, https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/skills-hungry-miners-predict-8000-more-workers-needed-in-wa-over-next-18-months-20200810-p55kay.html.

[9] ​Heidi Vella, “Fly in, Fly out Mine Workers: Adapting for a Post-Covid-19 World,” December 8, 2020, https://www.mining-technology.com/features/fly-in-fly-out-mine-workers-adapting-for-a-post-covid-19-world/.

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