Arctic safety record

Safety standards In the face of some of the world’s most challenging mining conditions, Sandvik’s maintenance team at a De Beers diamond mine in northern Canada has managed to work around the clock without a lost time injury – ever.

North of the 60th parallel, where arctic winds rip unabated across the Canadian tundra and the sun barely rises in the harsh winter months, a Sandvik maintenance team is working to ensure that the equipment at the De Beers diamond mine operates as it should, and without causing injury.

The team has been working at the Snap Lake mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories since 2007. In their nearly six years there, there has never been a lost time injury (LTI) in which an employee had to miss work, even for a day, because of an accident. The reasons for this impressive record are many – extensive safety policies and management systems put in place by Sandvik and De Beers – but it mostly comes down to the awareness and responsibility of the employees.

“Much of the credit goes to the crew and the supervision on site,” says Peter Larsen, vice president of Environmental Heath and Safety for Sandvik Mining Americas. “Both companies have systems, policies and procedures in place that support the right thought process when it comes to safety. From there, the front-line team and their supervisors encounter changing situations where they have to decide what to do. We try to put systems and a culture in place to support the right decisions in every situation a worker can face.”

These systems are myriad. The 45-member Sandvik team maintains all the mobile underground mining equipment and related vehicles at the mine for De Beers, and its members operate under safety policies and procedures put in place by both companies. The policies largely mirror each other with the goal of recognizing, assessing and mitigating risks before things go wrong.

“Both companies share the desire to get to zero harm, which is fundamental in terms of how we approach our day-to-day operations,” Larsen says. “Neither company accepts that an injury is natural in the course of doing business. The awareness, enforcement, coaching and support are there so that employees are trained to be attentive at all times, and at the end of the day we have a safe working environment.”

Both Sandvik and De Beers hold the required certifications and management systems that form the foundation of their safety programmes and ensure that the daily work is being done correctly and safely. But management systems can’t cover every conceivable dynamic and condition. Local safety programmes then kick in and close any gap between the management systems and site-specific risks.

All employees participate in a daily safety meeting before the start of each day and night shift, and a separate once-a-week meeting. Each employee also has a five-point safety card that poses questions such as these: Are entrances and travel ways in good order? Is the workplace and equipment in good order? And is the work being done safely and properly? The card also encourages employees to perform an act of safety each day, a practice of noticing unsafe conditions such as a power cord that could cause someone to trip.

About Snap Lake Diamond Mine

Located in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories on the shore of Snap Lake, Snap Lake Diamond Mine is De Beers’ first mine located outside Africa and Canada’s first true underground diamond mine. It boasts an annual processing capacity of 1.1 million tonnes and a recoverable ore grade of 1.2 carats per tonne, resulting in a production capacity of approximately 1.4 million carats of diamonds each year.

The mine began commercial production in 2008 and has an estimated life of more than 20 years. The Snap Lake ore body is a 2.5-metre-thick dyke that dips an average of 12 to 15 degrees from the north-west shore down under the lake. It is unlike most diamond-bearing kimberlite deposits, which are known as ‘pipes’ because of their conical or carrot-like shape.

“Reaching a milestone like this takes a long-term focused commitment to holding each and every employee accountable for their personal safety and that of their co-workers, from the workers on the maintenance floor to senior management,” says Cathie Bolstad, director of external and corporate affairs for De Beers Canada.

The team also uses a system called Risk Assessment Training to assess risk, as well as a Big Five Task Assessment, in which employees answer 10 questions about their jobs and job sites before working to identify risks and correct unsafe conditions. Before the start of each job, employees receive a safe work plan outlining the procedure for a specific job or a repair.

“Historically in the mining industry there are lost time injuries, and maintenance is usually one of the key areas where there are accidents,” says Marc Stuparyk, the project manager for Snap Lake maintenance. “But with the safety programmes put in place by Sandvik and De Beers, we are very safety-conscious so that there is no job we do that’s unsafe. We don’t put our people in harm’s way.”

This is an understatement. Not only has Sandvik gone nearly six years without a lost time injury, but the only incident of note in that time was when an employee fell and needed three stitches on his elbow. He returned straight to work.

“Mining is known to have certain risks, and public perception is that it is a highly uncontrolled environment,” Larsen says. “The reality is that risks can be managed and mitigated. We don’t want to see people hurt. There’s no value in a product that has human suffering associated with it.”

Both Sandvik and De Beers have had to work hard to reach this point, battling a number of challenges that on their own would pose safety risks, such as cold, windy weather and soft ground conditions.

The Sandvik employees working at Snap Lake, the first true underground diamond mine in Canada, are flown in for 12-hour shifts for two weeks, followed by two weeks off. There is no commercial airport nearby, another reason why maintaining a safe operation is of paramount importance.

“De Beers is committed to mining diamonds safely, securely and profitably, without harm to people or the environment,” Bolstad says. “To achieve that goal, it’s essential to have business partners who share that same principle.”

Sandvik has had other mining sites with impressive safety records, but Snap Lake is special because of the successful partnership between the two companies, which began in 2004 as De Beers was searching for a supplier partner.

“De Beers didn’t talk about equipment or money involved for the longest time,” Larsen says. “When we were approached, the question was more ‘Can we get married, and if we do can we get along?’”

The two companies did a thorough evaluation to see if the cultures and values would mesh, allowing them to get along. Ultimately, the companies aligned closely, and while there have been ongoing changes in staff, management, resources and the economy, the culture and safety focus have thrived.

“We’re still married, and we’re doing just fine,” Larsen says.