Mining has been taking place on Earth for thousands of years, when humans discovered that everything from coal for fuel to obsidian for arrowheads existed beneath their feet. But the industry has never faced a challenge quite like the one presented by COVID-19.
Throughout history, the discovery of precious metals and precious gems, like diamonds and rubies, have prompted tens, even hundreds of thousands to pick up and set off in search of their fortune. One of the most hectic of these events was the Gold Rush of 1849.
When gold was discovered in a stream bed in California’s Sacramento Valley in 1848, what soon became one of the world’s worst-kept secrets saw over 300,000 fortune-seekers succumb to gold fever, sell off their possessions, and flock to California.
While a few struck it rich, many others were soon penniless. Even today, some 170 years after the Gold Rush, the ‘Forty-Niners’ – who came from across the United States and as far away as Asia, Europe, and Australia – are still looked on as pioneers: courageous – or maybe just strangely mad – men and women ready to relocate hundreds or thousands of miles from home.
FIFO in a COVID-19 world
Although inheriting something of the spirit of the wild ’49 Gold Rush, in modern times exploration for oil, gas, and minerals has become a respected profession and big business worldwide. And far from the days of covered wagons many workers access mine sites by aircraft in a ‘Fly-In-Fly-Out’ arrangement, commonly known as FIFO.
While workers operating in remote areas is not new, the practice of FIFO began in Australia in the early 1980s. Continuing to gain popularity globally, FIFO is a cheaper alternative to constructing and maintaining housing establishments in remote areas. Over the years, FIFO has gained popularity not only in Australia but also in a number of locations in Canada, such as Newfoundland’s Deer Lake.
While the practice of FIFO and working on a rotation system has its pros and cons, and is far from being a ‘one size fits all’ solution – not everyone is suited to working 12-hour shifts for up to nine weeks on and two weeks off – Fly-In-Fly-Out is presenting another challenge in the form of COVID-19. The disease was first reported online as ‘viral pneumonia’ by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in the People’s Republic of China on December 31, 2019, and determined to be caused by a novel coronavirus a week and a half later.
In the time since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the virus has spread unstoppably, infecting millions and claiming close to two million lives. What was considered by many to be just China’s problem soon impacted every country and industry on the planet. Fearing uncontrollable outbreaks, some mines closed, while Canada, South Africa and some other nations decreed mining an essential industry.
For mine operators and FIFO workers alike, accustomed to having a home base and flying to mine sites, the pandemic has presented a host of challenges.
Mining is an industry where crews often work shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing tools, making conditions for disease transmission ideal. To combat the spread of COVID-19, many mine sites worldwide implemented newly-minted protocols.
In the United States, updated safety guidelines have been issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration under the United States Department of Labor.
Information from these agencies and others including Natural Resources Canada and the Minerals Council of Australia, outlines safe work practices such as maintaining a six-foot separation between workers, the wearing of facemasks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), frequent handwashing and use of hand sanitizer, and regular cleaning and sterilization of frequently-touched areas and equipment.
Employees showing any signs of infection, such as fever, chills, coughing, sore throat or difficulty breathing, are encouraged to avoid others and stay home.
Adding another layer to the challenges of maintaining a safe workplace during the pandemic are FIFO workers. By mid-2020, American-British law firm Hogan Lovells issued their report, Implications of COVID-19 on the Australian Mining Industry. In it, the authors discuss the closure of borders to Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia, and the Northern Territory, and a 14-day self-quarantine period. These measures have resulted in many interstate flights being cancelled, and mine workers in the Northern Territory have been required to apply for travel restriction exemptions and to self-isolate for 14 days.
For FIFO workers and airlines alike, tougher restrictions have seen fewer flights and reduced revenue for mining companies and carriers. To help slow the spread of the virus, mining giants like the BHP Group have reduced the number of FIFO and DIDO (Drive-in-Drive-Out) workers, with non-critical staff encouraged to work from home. Others, like well-known mining company Rio Tinto, brought in extra medical staff to perform screening, including a questionnaire for FIFO workers, temperature checks, and blood testing for viral antibodies. Anyone testing positive is required to take a specific COVID-19 test.
Other mining companies, such as Newcrest, responded by suspending FIFO operations from Australia to Papua New Guinea’s Lihir Island last March “to impede the spread of COVID-19 transmission,” as the company said in a media statement.
All these precautions, however, have not been able to prevent FIFO workers from carrying the virus from one location to another. Two mines in Papua New Guinea (PNG) suspended operations last August, when a case of COVID-19 was traced back to an Australian FIFO worker who entered PNG from Spain through Turkey and Singapore. Following protocol, the individual was isolated along with others. With tests revealing the person was asymptomatic, the individual was relocated to a separate isolation facility for care and treatment.
The future of FIFO
As a convenient and effective way of supplying mine sites with workers, Fly-In-Fly-Out will no doubt continue to be utilized by mines – with extreme cautionary measures in place including 14-day quarantines. Since COVID-19 has been with us over a year, it is not at all likely that ‘things will return to normal’ until vaccines are provided, administered and have taken effect more-or-less worldwide, which is still some way from happening.
For some FIFO workers – confined to tiny quarters, unable to socialize in groups and not permitted to return home to family and friends – COVID-related isolation is becoming a lonely burden. At times, FIFO staff have compared their quarantine to ‘house arrest.’
With employers necessarily serious about stopping the spread of the deadly virus, the health and well-being of FIFO workers is a top priority. Organizations like The Australian Workers’ Union have been working for months with governments and businesses to keep people safe while growing the economy, since mining and oil and gas are essential. Along with self-quarantining, resource sector workers must meet several criteria, such as being essential to operations, taking on time-critical work, and being unable to be replaced with temporary workers.
As challenging as 2020 was, this year will see further air travel changes for FIFO workers and the public alike. Some major airlines, most notably Australia’s Qantas, have advised that proof of vaccination will be a necessity for international flights, a policy likely to gain traction with other carriers, too.
Much like the prospectors who made their way to California during the Gold Rush, today’s FIFO men and women are a special breed, able to live virtually anywhere and work long hours for many days in a row. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on all of us, it has become especially difficult for mine workers who are required to isolate for 14 days, away from co-workers and friends.
But with dozens of pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Roche, and others working on vaccines, the next challenge in the battle against COVID-19 may not be the virus itself, but rolling out vaccinations for seven and a half billion people.