November 2014

Miners take measures against ebola

Companies in West Africa are ramping up health and safety protocols to deal with ongoing outbreak

By Correy Baldwin

As the scale of the ebola outbreak centred in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia continues to grow, mining companies working in West Africa are moving to limit the health and safety risks to their operations, as well as the effects of the outbreak on local populations and economies.

“These countries cannot face the situation on their own. It has reached proportions that are way beyond their means,” said Oumar Toguyeni, Iamgold regional vice-president for West Africa. “We’re committed to this region. We are doing as much as we can, but the international community needs to come to the help of these countries.” Iamgold was one of 11 companies operating in the region whose CEOs signed an open letter in September calling on the global community to “step up the fight against ebola.”

ArcelorMittal, whose CEO also signed the letter, was forced to halt a mine expansion project in August at its Yekepa iron ore mine in Liberia, the nation hardest hit by the outbreak, though existing operations at the site have not been effected, according to a company spokesperson.

The company regularly tests all employees and visitors to their Liberia sites for fever, and has stocked both its own medical centres and others in Liberia with personal protective equipment. It has also provided training to health care workers and employees. “We have implemented an extensive communications campaign aimed at ensuring employees know what actions to take to minimize the risk of contamination,” said the spokesperson. “Ebola awareness sessions were conducted by a leading infection prevention and control expert, and an infectious disease nurse has been brought in who serves as ArcelorMittal Liberia’s in-house expert.”

Toguyeni, who is the chair of the CIM Dakar branch, explained that industry has been working together on information sharing and advocacy efforts, including financial donations to NGOs combating the disease, and helping supply and distribute medical and sanitation equipment and educational resources. But they have also had to take precautionary measures. Companies like Iamgold and First Quantum are monitoring the situation closely, assessing the potential risks to their operations daily and keeping staff well informed. They have stepped up screenings and built extra health monitoring and medical checks into the daily routine at their work sites.

Iamgold’s Essakane project is in eastern Burkina Faso, which in mid-­October was outside the affected area. According to Toguyeni, his company has developed its own eight-level graded action plan, depending on the severity of the outbreak and its impacts around their operations.

Complicated plane travel in and out of West Africa for fly-in/fly-out workers from North America as well as within the region is taking its toll; some flights are suspended and others rerouted. “Flights are much more expensive and the travel time is much longer,” said Grace Barrasso, communications manager at First Quantum, which has a mine in Mauritania. “It’s very tiring and demoralizing, and it’s having quite an impact on our operations from a personnel management perspective.” Families of international workers are expressing concern, and potential employees are hesitant to work in the region.

Open borders are making the outbreak unpredictable and difficult to contain, said François Auclair, CEO of Algold Resources, who, though not a signatory to the open letter, agrees with the principle behind it. “If ebola was reported in Mauritania or Burkina Faso, we would have to take steps to ensure that our workers are safe.” This, he explained, would be extremely complicated, given the limited medical facilities in the region. Algold hires local labourers, but often there are no local doctors available to help screen for signs of ebola.

Ebola was unknown in West Africa until this outbreak, meaning local health professionals must be trained, and the population must be taught basic information such as how the virus is transmitted. “I believe it’s our responsibility in the industry to educate the people,” said Auclair. “If a mining company can educate its staff, the information will get out. Until a vaccine is created, it’s only by education that we’ll be able to fight that disease.”

But there is only so much industry can do, said Barrasso: “The international community needs to mobilize resources and get health care professionals and equipment on the ground as soon as possible.”

The United States has committed to deploying 3,000 troops in Liberia, including army engineers and medical personnel, to provide aide across the affected region. They will help set up 18 medical centres and financial, medical and logistical supports that have been provided by a number of other countries including Canada. But even as resources flow into the region, Barrasso suggests that much of it has come too late. “The disease is spreading, and now they’re playing a catch-up game,” she said. “This is not just a West African issue. This disease really has the potential to go global. It’s an international issue and it needs to be stamped out.”

“I’m very concerned that we’ve had very little success in trying to contain this disease,” said Dr. Robert Quigley, regional medical director of the Americas Region for International SOS, a medical services and travel security firm. “But I also have concerns about all of these resources being dumped into this region in West Africa.” With multiple NGOs on the ground, he said, efforts are sporadic, and without a single body overseeing and coordinating the allocation of funds, resources will go to waste.

“There needs to be transparent co-operation among a variety of organizations, and it’s important that companies working in the region work together [to co-ordinate their response],” said Quigley. “Governments will pay attention when they see this kind of co-operation.”

Ebola outbreak

Mar. 22 Ebola identified in Guinea, where it had already killed 29 people.

Mar. 28 The first ebola cases reported in Liberia.

May 26 The first ebola deaths reported in Sierra Leone.

Aug. 8 WHO declares ebola outbreak an international public health emergency.

Aug. 12 Death toll reaches 1,000.

Sept. 16 United States promises to send 3,000 military engineers and medical personnel to West Africa to build clinics and train health care workers.

Sept. 26 Death toll surpasses 3,000.

Sept. 30 CDC confirms first case of ebola reported in the U.S. from a traveller coming from Liberia. Two nurses are later infected.

Oct. 14 WHO warns the ebola epidemic could hit 10,000 new cases every week if drastic measures are not taken within the next two months.

Latest figures (as of Oct. 17)

8,997 Total cases

4,493 Total deaths

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