It is more challenging to work in the high Chilean Andes than almost anywhere else in the world, but the region also holds huge rewards for miners who thrive on adversity. This is why work at Kinross’ Maricunga mine, 4,500 metres above sea level, has elevated meaning.
“Everyone knows that Maricunga is an extreme mine, one of the hardest ones,” says Richard Lizana, the mine’s technical services manager. “A lot of people are proud to work here; it’s something everyone talks about. A lot of people say that if you’re able to work at Maricunga, you can work anywhere in the world.”
Temperatures on any given day can fluctuate by 30 degrees Celsius or more; access roads can be buried in snow and climbing a set of stairs can knock the wind out of you. These hardships make the bottom line for Maricunga even more impressive: in 2011, the mine produced more than 230,000 ounces of gold, and at US$457 per ounce, is among the company’s lowest cost per ounce operations.
Though Kinross expects a 25 per cent loss in efficiency from its haul trucks, the strongest effects of operating a mine at the top of the world are felt by humans, not equipment. “Any kind of activity outdoors is really difficult,” says Lizana. “Some people have a hard time working there because their bodies aren’t ready for it. For some others it’s easy. But spirit and the motivation to do a good job are most important.”
The conditions rely on a certain degree of grit from Kinross’ employees. “Sometimes, you have to plan for bad weather, but for altitude you can’t do anything,” Lizana says.
According to José Bugueño, Kinross’ health and safety manager for South America, workers have an annual medical examination, and all visitors who spend at least one night on site must have a medical assessment prior to the visit, but there is always room for improvement in dealing with rarefied air. “The effects of altitude on the human body are not well defined,” he explains.
Having spent time there since early 1993, Guillermo Contreras, now Kinross’ corporate responsibility and community relations manager for Chile, feels for the workers at the site. “Working at 4,500 metres elevation, you have significantly less oxygen,” he points out. “So there is a potential for headaches and altitude sickness.
“It’s extremely hard for the people who work there, working seven days a week, doing 12-hour shifts,” says Contreras. In addition to equipping all of the mining vehicles and buildings with oxygen tanks, Kinross has built procedures for cold as well. “We have protocols to move all people working outside inside because they can be frozen in a matter of minutes if the wind changes,” explains Contreras. In the case of a “viento blanco” incident, where snow blows so heavily that visibility is nil, mining is suspended.
“Our winter operations regulations, in effect from April 15 to September 15, require shelters in all production areas of the mine,” says Bugueño. “They are kept up, so that should workers need them, they are stocked with food, places to sleep, baths and heating.”
Owing to high winds and snow, road access to the site can be cut off in minutes, trapping miners at elevation. The management expects to lose 13 days of each year to adverse conditions, though the actual number of lost days varies from year to year. “The last three years, we didn’t lose any days,” Contreras says. But in 1997, before Kinross acquired Maricunga, the site saw some of the worst weather ever recorded, and the mine was shut down for two months. “It was a 100-year storm,” says Contreras, who was working as an environmental manager for Amax, the previous operator of the mine. “We had 6.5 metres of snow and you couldn’t see any buildings. You couldn’t see anything. In total, 150 people were rescued with four helicopters that we rented. I was in charge of that. The VP contacted me and said ‘Guillermo, rent all the helicopters you can find that can fly safely at that altitude.’
“We learned a lesson, and we changed the access road,” he says. “The one that we use to access the site now was built a year later. The original road had 110 kilometres above 4,000 metres; the new one has just six kilometres above that.”