On mining jobs at cold fly-in, fly-out camps

Caldwell in the Canadian North

Just returned from a trip to a fly-in, fly-out mine where the temperatures were down to minus forty and fifty. The only consolation for the extreme cold was the company.

Here are a few word pictures of some of the people I chatted to. I set them down here as a way to represent the extremes of jobs and careers in the mining industry, and specifically in the far north.

Ken* and I sat drinking brandy in a hotel bar the night before catching an early flight north. He is of farming stock from Manitoba.

“But my father and uncles still hold the best farm land, so I decided to become a paramedic. Found a job with the folks building and maintaining the ice road. There I discovered I was good running the equipment. Now I run and supervise construction and upkeep of the ice road. Whatever it takes: snowcat to clear the snow and drive the frost deeper; spray cannon to add water to the ice to make it thicker; bulldozers to keep the path clear and pull trucks out of snowbanks when the drivers fall asleep.”

His wife is at the other end of the line.  She runs a camp for the ice road workers.

“I catch a ride up to see her whenever possible.  But we have long summers together back in Manitoba; although I sometimes have to get another summer job to pay the bills and that often takes me even further north.”

Joe* chatted to me on the flight back from the mine. He is a mechanical engineer.

“I was up late last night polishing a proposal to the boss to institute six sigma in the maintenance department. The old guys don’t like the idea as they cannot understand why I would want to change out a working part when it is not yet broken. They laugh at my statistics of failure recurrences. But it is such a good idea.”

Evan* is the underground geotechnical engineer.

“I deal with the rock, support systems, and of course groundwater inflow to the underground workings.” He took me to see a sheet of water that is pouring from a fault system into the mine workings and putting great demands on the pumps and water treatment plant. “We have consultants who put together a groundwater model. They calibrated it before we hit the fault. They never did predict this sort of inflow. I not even sure they can incorporate such flow into the model. In practice you don’t need a computer model for this–the water pressures in the area are the pressure of the water at surface.”

They will try to install a grout umbrella although some I spoke to felt a freeze program would be more effective.

Sylvia* met me off the plane and told me she would show me round and lead me through the health and safety courses.

We were introduced to the gym and the canteen; told not to take took big a portion; warned about making a nose in the rooms; urged to put a bath towel on the floor lest we slip when getting out of the small showers; and told where to watch perpetual ice hockey on the TVs.  Then she sat me down in front of a computer and told me to go through three self-paced courses.

These are terrible.  I started; fouled the computer that had to be rebooted; opened the wrong courses; and signed my name on the paper in the wrong place.

Frustrated, I finally got into the correct first course. It consisted of more wordy platitudes than I have ever encountered in one place. I was tired from having risen early; in the face of these wordy sentiments of no sincerity but corporate correctness I dozed off, not once but three times. I could not concentrate or stay awake; even though I was getting frustrated by the bullshit I was forced to consume. By midday, I was through but one course and was faced with two more, including one on how to mark and ship a hazardous container. My client awaited me at lunch and had a string of meetings planned for the afternoon. I knew there was no way I could compete the next two courses in an afternoon.

My Irish temper flared; I blew up and told her how dumb it was that I should have to pass a course on hazardous waste shipment before being allowed to wander the corridors to the food place. I told her that I had no intention of working with powerful tools or entering a confined-entry space. She got testy and the air was charged.

I marched into her boss and let rip. He cowered and said he would look into it. I stormed out and headed to my client contact in the lunch room and told him I needed to be relieved of the obligation to pass a test on confined-space entry, power-tool use, and hazardous waste shipment. He pulled some strings and I was exempt from more pious platitudes and instructions in things I would never do.

But Mike* stoically sat the afternoon through (falling asleep only four times,) and steeled himself for a week of such instruction before he could go to work as an underground mechanic. I left him looking most dispirited in spite of exhortations in the courses to “join the mining family, implement sustainable corporate growth, and participate in community relations.” All he wanted was a solid job, a secure salary, and two weeks off to go back to Ontario to his wife.

Then through the plant with a young metallurgist who instructions were to look after me and instruct me on the materials to be managed to make a tailings facility and paste underground. But he was distracted, for a pump had blown that morning spilling product all over the floor and the older workers were tramping around in the mud like schoolboys in a happy summer storm–I too took a chance to splash my boots in the mud–it was fun.

At supper I sat chatting to dour boers come to audit the security system. We compared security philosophy here in the midst of the snow-covered tundra and in the midst of a baking African desert. Turns out the issues are much the same in both places.

And so to the long journey back and to this blog — otherwise inaccessible in such far places.

*not the person's real name

For more from Jack Caldwell, see his blog, I Think Mining

Photo: Jack Caldwell