November 2009

Student Life

New to this: An Irishman from Germany who is studying in Quebec learns the ropes in Ontario

By M. Condra

Geared up for a day of work

Many people find it hard to understand why I chose to study mining engineering at McGill University — myself included. An Irishman from Germany, I originally came to Quebec on a high school exchange program and stayed on to complete my CEGEP in Arts and Sciences at Marianopolis College. I cannot honestly claim to have known much about mining at all. On reflection, I think I chose this domain to satisfy my innate sense of adventure and curiosity while opening up a world of opportunities for myself. Being 6’4” in height, I have often been told that I’m too tall to be a miner. I can guess at why this may be the case, but I can’t say I was sure I knew why height could be a disadvantage.

Fortunately, the representatives from Goldcorp’s Musselwhite Mine who came to interview me in the second week of classes were not outraged to hear that I knew next to nothing about the industry of my future career. I like to think that my honesty and apparent will to learn is what convinced them to offer me a summer position as an underground helper at their fly-in/fly-out, 4,000 tonne-per-day gold mine in northwestern Ontario.

I had thought that I would not be trusted to do more than observe and stay out of the way. However, after a week of intense training, with a strong focus on safety, I was put to work with the boom truck operator. As my two-week rotations and 12-hour shifts progressed, I got the opportunity to work with the longhole explosives loader, the service crew and the crusher operator. Also, like all the other miners, I had to attend daily safety meetings, comply with the five-point safety system for underground work, and be responsible for my tasks being executed safely. It would take too long to describe all that I saw and learned, but if I had to choose some of the most important knowledge gained, I would highlight the following.

First of all, I now have a better idea of the scale of operations in a mine. It is no easy feat to move so much material. I also learned about the complexity of working underground at a remote camp. There are so many ways in which any task can hit a snag, even if it is only because the cross-shift did not return something to the right place. Even the smallest jobs require planning and dialogue with colleagues. One has to secure access to the right supplies in the right place while not affecting anybody else’s job.

Somebody once told me that “the miner is the softest thing underground.” Now, I realize that this is a reminder of the importance of safety — the most important consideration of any mining-related activity. Goldcorp’s take on safety is that they would like to make the workplace “safe enough for our families.”

I have a feeling that some miners have a low opinion of engineers because they think that they sit in cozy offices and lack insight into the actual work that is done underground. As far as I am concerned, I believe that this work-term has been an essential part of my education and I am very thankful for the opportunity to experience hands-on reality at Musselwhite Mine. I could not even imagine how to continue studies as a mining engineer with my previous level of oblivion towards the job and the huge emphasis the mining industry places on safety. I would like to encourage students to search for a practical job as a work term because without it you may just remain “new to this.”

Michan Condra is a second-year mining engineering student at McGill University. He is a recipient of the R.P.D. Graham Scholarship and the Mining Engineering Entrance Scholarship. His first work term was at the Musselwhite Mine in Ontario and he hopes that his subsequent ones will take him all over the world. He wishes to eventually focus on the environment and giving back to the planet.

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