The Faces Behind the Wheel
They may look like easy-to-drive toy trucks when at the bottom of the mine, but the reality is quite the opposite. Mining trucks' wheels are twice the height of their driver and the trucks themselves are the size of a two-storey house. Yet, at some mining operations, such as Escondida mine -in Chile- and the Australian Cadia Hill Gold Mine, you are just as likely to see a petite woman behind the massive wheel – if you can see the driver at all.
From the pits of Australia to those of South America, mining companies such as Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Barrick Gold Corp are hunting for people to address a dire shortage of skilled workers. They have turned to workers from other industries affected by the economic turndown, such as Forestry, as well as to women who are looking for extra family income.
Cadia Hill Gold Mine Manager, Jason Grace, says that the giant open-cut mine is one place where female drivers have found a place that welcomes them.
"We've found that women tend to be more cautious when operating the trucks; they are softer on the equipment," he says.
"These trucks are very expensive and it is possible to over-rev them and we find the women are a bit more cautious," adds Grace.
David Constable, Vice President Investor Relations of FNX Mining Company, agrees. "Despite concerns or issues regarding the performance of female equipment operators, women have actually a better touch in operating trucks than some men do," he says. "Women tend to take more care of the machine and don't abuse the brakes or the engine….Operating the machine better means more profits." Savings and higher returns are two of the main reasons mining companies, such as Barrick Gold Corp. and BHP Billiton Ltd, like the female operators. Their performance actually cuts costs and increases output.
Long before women came on the scene, individuals from the most diverse backgrounds took this job as a career for life. Such is the case of Steven Mimmeault, who has worked for 19 years as a mine truck driver, four of them at the FNX's Sudbury Basin Property.
For him, spending 10 hours underground every day, seven days in a row, is not "a big deal."
"In other places you work 30 to 35 days straight and then you go home for a week. Here I go back home every day and then I get seven days off," Mimmeault explains.He acknowledges that long underground shifts seem to be a bit harder for women, but he adds that there are no distinctions at the Sudbury Basin Property – everyone follows the same rules.
Experts say that it takes about three months to train a driver, but five years before he or she operates at maximum speed and skill.
According to Mimmeault, despite the time needed for training and the feeling that you're "moving a small mountain," mining trucks are fairly easy to drive. The main differences between a regular truck and the kind of vehicle he drives are the giant machine's dimensions and the size of the blind spots — a video camera is needed to enable the driver to back up.
"Every young man should be trying to get into this industry because [he'd] set [himself] up for life," says 59-year-old Dennis Gullickson, who trains people to driver graders, dozers and excavators at Rio Tinto's West Angelas iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of North Western Australia. "My wife is a chartered accountant and I left high school after the first year but I earn more than she does."
Dennis, who ran his own company driving road trucks for most of his life before abandoning that and switching to mining 15 years ago, says his is a fine job.
"It's an excellent life," he says. "The money is good and, because of the way the shifts work, I get a week off in every three weeks and a month off every six months. Getting to spend quality time with your loved ones is tremendous, as is having the money to do something with that time. I've just booked a dream holiday to America."
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