It used to be that a job in mining often meant joining communities and putting down roots in towns created to serve a mine. But the last of those in Canada – Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia – was built more than 30 years ago. According to research by Keith Storey at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the boom-bust nature of the minerals sector, the birth of telecommuting, a shortage of labour supply and the fact that resource towns offer limited opportunities, especially for women, have all contributed to wearing away the welcome of purpose-built mining towns. Camp life is here to stay.
Long-distance commuting and camp life is the new model, with its own unique and sometimes difficult circumstances. And while it is difficult to assess the growing number of workers facing these challenges, globally there are now tens of thousands flying or driving to remote camps. In Western Australia, for example, the number of camp-based mines grew to more than 100 in 2005 from about 26 in 1991.
“There are things companies are doing that have an impact,” said Adrian Blanco, former procurement corporate manager at Hochschild Mining (he is now with McEwen Mining). Until recently, he spent between 35 and 40 per cent of his time at Hochschild’s San José mine camp in Argentina. “When you have people involved in activities other than work, that provides a better environment for quality of life and also improves safety standards and productivity.”
Camp life is unique in that for the weeks that an employee is on site, the line between work and home is erased. Joanne Klein, Goldcorp’s vice-president of people, explained that the company strives to make sure employees do not feel they are missing key parts of their home life. “I think it’s the small things, too,” she added. “When I was at Musselwhite recently, I walked into the cafeteria and there was a big whiteboard announcing someone’s birthday. They had a big cake, and I think those are the things that go a long way to making people feel at home.”
Blanco agreed that even small gestures greatly improve FIFO workers’ living conditions. When senior management and board members visit operations in Argentina, for example, everyone eats together in the dining room so that everybody feels equal and valued. “People have breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same place for weeks straight. It’s a time they share with everybody else; it’s a special time of day,” he said.
At the Raglan mine in Nunavik, Quebec, FIFO workers typically spend between two to three weeks at a time on site, followed by two to three weeks at home. The company has several initiatives to help workers cope with the alternative lifestyle. For example, in addition to offering each employee a gift on Christmas morning morning, the company hosts local Inuit artists for an art and crafts fair on International Aboriginal Day.
“The art and crafts fair allows us to promote the Inuit culture,” said Céliane Dorval, communications and external relations coordinator at Raglan, “and it’s a nice sharing [experience] between the Inuit employees and the non-Inuit employees.” Raglan also has a leisure committee that regularly organizes game nights, BBQs, concerts, comedy shows and even golfing down south for when FIFO workers are on their time off.
Sharing between the mining camp and local culture helps FIFO workers cultivate a sense of pride, Blanco pointed out. One way that operations can encourage sharing is by having workers give tours of the mine and lead activities with local people. “This creates not only a sense of responsibility towards the community but also a sense of membership with the company and pride for what the company is doing across the area,” Blanco said.
Healthy body, healthy mine
The benefits of physical activity have been well researched and documented. Staying physically fit decreases susceptibility to illness and injury, and it also has a positive effect on mental health. To improve productivity and morale, companies are increasingly outfitting mines with athletic facilities that are freely accessible to employees.
“At Cigar Lake, Cameco’s recreation club tries to offer a variety of physical and social activities for our employees and contractors to keep busy after work,” said Trevor Gonzales, HR generalist at Cameco. He described the mine’s full-size gym, where workers play floor hockey, soccer, badminton, volleyball and basketball. Employees can also join in a pumpkin-carving contest around Halloween, watch ultimate fighting or boxing matches on pay-per-view, or participate in sports competitions between neighbouring mines.
Goldcorp’s mines also have stand-out fitness facilities, but Christine Marks, the company’s director of corporate communications, said these take different forms depending on the site. “At Peñasquito in Mexico there’s a beautiful soccer pitch. But that doesn’t really make sense for northern Quebec in winter.” At Musselwhite, on the southern shore of Opapimiskan Lake, fishing equipment is very popular.
Fueling all that activity properly is crucial. “The food is very, very important,” Klein said, adding that nutrition is also site and culture specific. “We are fortunate because the catering company that we use at Musselwhite is a First Nations company.” Windigo Catering, which serves the operation 480 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, employs people from the area and incorporates traditional foods like bannock and wild game into the menu.
Striking a balance
At Raglan, spouses are invited three times a year to visit the site. “This is a great way to help spouses understand what their husband or wife does at the mine site and to see for themselves what life is like there,” said Dorval. “Family plays a significant part in employee retention, so we have to engage with them as well to ensure our workers’ well-being.”
But helping FIFO workers stay connected with family on a daily basis is one part of camp life that is proving difficult for companies to improve.
The cost of Internet is very high, especially in remote locations. While most mines have a wireless network connection, Blanco explained that the connection is often too shoddy for video calling, which is very frustrating for employees anxious to see the faces and hear the voices of their family back home.
While a reliable Internet connection is undoubtedly becoming critical to the maintenance of modern life, Blanco pointed out that providing a high-speed Wi-Fi connection at the mine camps is a double-edged sword. Many employees can become dependent on the Internet for entertainment and social connection, and spend all of their free time glued to an iPhone, tablet or laptop. This discourages workers from engaging in exercise, participating in activities and integrating with the FIFO community.
“It’s a whole new challenge for companies to win over employees with attractive activities to promote teamwork,” Blanco said. At mines where he has worked, employees were encouraged to participate because there were plenty of organized inter-departmental sports competitions and tournaments. He said there is a noted increase in participation when companies provide game calendars, jerseys and prizes, and when workers are encouraged to develop creative team names. Such things provide identity, which helps form a sense of community – especially when the sport is culturally appropriate.
Providing a camp environment where FIFO workers can lead fulfilling lives sets the stage for more than just productivity, safety and health; it opens the door to meaningful experiences, relationships and memories that can last a lifetime.
“I have seen many examples of friendships that grow beyond the mining site,” said Blanco. “This is a natural thing. Having these tough conditions can create a lot of bonds between people.”