November 2008


Safety, above all else

By C. Hersey

Vale Inco Birchtree mine — John T. Ryan safety award winner

This month’s featured winner of the John T. Ryan Safety Award, in the Metal Mines category for the Prairies and Northwest Territories region, is Vale Inco’s Birchtree mine. Vale Inco operates a fully integrated mining, milling, smelting and refining complex at its operations in Thompson, Manitoba. Birchtree mine was originally in operation from 1965 to 1978. After being placed on standby for 10 years, production resumed in 1988 and continues to the present day. In 2000, the mine was deepened to the 4100 level and production was expanded to 3,800 tonnes of nickel ore per day.

Peter Leinberger, superintendent of Birchtree mine, explained how Vale Inco came to win the coveted safety award. “Safety is a fundamental and unassailable priority here at Vale Inco,” said Leinberger. “Our goal is to reduce and ultimately eliminate the incidence of disabling injuries at all of our operations. We continue to make progress towards this objective through ongoing efforts to evaluate and minimize operational risks to safety in all our facilities and at our development projects.” At Vale Inco, the goal, above all else, is to put safety first, at which point everything falls into place.

Birchtree mine has acted emphatically to develop a sustained safety culture. Investments in tools and programs help to ensure that priorities are properly addressed, starting with safety. In 2003, the company initiated a program called SafeProduction to help manage risks from hazards in the workplace. The goal of SafeProduction is to achieve Zero Harm in a sustainable, productive workplace. Leinberger added that the key to this program “is to get employees to understand and then manage the risk involved when doing work. We have been focusing on teaching people to work using four actions, or distinct behaviours. They are: plan all work, accept the boundaries, care for each other and lead by example.”

“The SafeProduction model uses a series of tools that we have made available to our employees,” Leinberger explained. “The first tool that we spent a lot of time training employees on is a process we call ‘Stop, Look, Assess and Manage’ or SLAM. We expect people to use this tool for every task they perform so that they can identify the hazards and plan how to manage and reduce the risk from those hazards.” Leinberger also stressed the importance of employee involvement in the development of safety habits, where they can come forward with their own ideas and suggestions. “This is one of the key principles of the SafeProduction program,” he said. “Employee involvement is essential.”

In 2006, this focus on safety led to significant accomplishments in employee safety performance. The number of disabling injuries was reduced to a mere 1.2 per 200,000 hours worked. Although short of the target of 1.1 per 200,000 hours worked, the performance still represented continuous improvement over time and established Vale Inco as one of the safest companies in the Canadian mining and metals industry, based on this measure. “All of us understand that all injuries are preventable and that the prevention of personal injuries and incidents is just good business. By following the SafeProduction model, we are moving forward towards establishing a strong safety culture and environment,” said Leinberger.

For all its safety efforts, Vale Inco’s Birchtree mine has added quite a few awards to its trophy case, including the John T. Ryan Regional Award in both 2005 and 2007, and the National Award in 2004. Vale Inco’s Thompson Mine also won the Regional Award in 2006. The hard work continues — safety statistics for 2008 are at lower values for disabling injuries than in previous years. Leinberger humbly added: “Even though we have had a lot of success in reducing our disabling injury rate and the severity of those injuries, in the mines of the Manitoba operations, we are still experiencing a relatively high rate of smaller incidents requiring medical aid. Although minor in nature, medical aids remain an important indicator of a safe workplace and our focus is on reducing our rate further and creating a workplace where any incident is important and a big deal.”

With this safety-above-all-else attitude, Birchtree mine is sure to attain this goal.

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