A day in the mine

Returning from a recent assignment that took me to Snow Lake, Man., and more than 900 metres down an underground mine, I now have a slightly different opinion on the issue — and new respect for mine workers.

What was I doing up north, deep underground, hundreds of kilometres away from the comforts of my office cubicle — one may wonder.

I was interviewing Roberta Spicer, health and safety superintendent for North Bay, Ont.-based Redpath Mining Contractors and Engineers. The assignment was for a new series of features in Canadian Occupational Safety magazine dubbed, A Day in the Life, which goes in-depth into the intricacies of a typical workday for a safety professional.

What better way to kick off this new series than to feature a safety professional in one of the most hazardous industries in Canada: Mining.

And who better to provide unbiased reporting than someone who has never set foot on a mine site before: Me.

For the most part, it was a very interesting — albeit a little unnerving — experience. But it was also eye opening.

Unlike many workers who turn into mechanical, routine-driven beings when they go to work everyday, mine workers have to be a little more engaged and a lot more attentive to their workplace every single day. The price of not paying serious attention to their work is just too high to pay.

The significance of wearing personal protective equipment, for example, is more evident for someone who works at a mine site. The physical work environment makes it easy for one to imagine the consequences of not wearing a PPE. I seldom have any reason to wear safety glasses, but in that mine hundreds of metres below the surface, I was wearing all my PPE like my life depended on it — and it did.

The mining industry has come a long way in keeping mines safer for workers. Some would even argue the mining industry is, in fact, one of the safest because of the extraordinary efforts the industry has done to prevent injuries and illnesses.

Hazard control, however, can only do so much. In a high-hazard job site, such as mines, hazard control works alongside worker training and awareness. A company can put in place the best hazard control mechanisms and the best PPE money can buy, but those will mean nothing if the worker lacks the knowledge and understanding of what those hazards mean and their potential consequences.

It’s easy to get complacent with our day-to-day routines on the job. Come in for work, turn on the computer, type some words on a screen, read some paperwork, make coffee, type some more, have lunch, type some more, read some more and go home.

“Uneventful” is what many of us would probably describe a typical day at work. Not so much for a mine worker, I would imagine. Maybe they don’t go to work everyday thinking, “this might be the day I would get hurt on the job” — but that thought would most certainly have crossed every miner’s mind at one point in their working lives. It certainly crossed my mind, and I was only inside the mine for a few hours.

I have new respect for mine workers. Not every one can do the job of a miner. It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it. Mining is a tough industry to work in, and many employers do what they can to ensure they protect those few who are willing to take the challenge of working underground, exposed to so many potential risks, day in, day out.

I now understand why those 15 Australian miners would lose their job over a prank video. The incident was more than just a case of a few workers joking around.

What the public saw from that Harlem Shake video were some people having a little fun at work. What the employer saw, however, was something more dangerous, it’s not really funny: a potential serious injury.