Working in the resource sector can be stressful, lonely, and repetitive, leading to depression, substance abuse, and other health issues. Fortunately, awareness of the need to support workers in oil and gas, mining, and the lumber industry is growing…
In the United States, the mining industry produces over $80 billion in minerals each year. Along with oil and gas, the resource sector provides millions of direct and indirect jobs globally, lowering trade deficits and generating tax revenue used to build and support hospitals, schools, and public infrastructure.
Even with its countless economic benefits, resource sector industries continue facing challenges. From environmental pressures surrounding decarbonization to geopolitics—the hardships of which increased following Russia’s war on Ukraine and mining companies selling off assets—and the ongoing need for costly investment in machinery, the issues are many.
One of the largest remains the skills shortage. An aging workforce combined with a growing number of retirements and too few younger people taking on positions poses risks to productivity and profitability.
A recent survey from McKinsey & Company revealed 71 percent of mining leaders believe the shortage of talent is preventing them from “delivering on production targets and strategic objectives,” and that to many, mining as a career is “not currently an aspirational industry for young technical talent to join,” with significantly lower enrolment and graduations in mining engineering reported in Australia and the United States.
Describing the current situation as a “talent squeeze,” the survey lists several reasons for the lack of new workers, including workplace culture, concerns about destroying Indigenous cultural sites, and “recent public failures of the industry relating to safety.”
Perception and reality
Even with improved guidelines and technologies, accidents still happen on oil drilling and mine sites. This year alone has witnessed many mine-related incidents, including miners killed or trapped after a series of Colombian coal mines exploded, and workers reported missing after the collapse of an illegal quartzite mine in Rwanda.
In Peru, a fire at a gold mine left 27 dead, making it the worst incident in the country in over 20 years. And recently, over a dozen miners died when flooding collapsed the Talavera mine in Venezuela. Reportedly “operated in a rudimentary approach by informal miners in search of gold,” the mine is in an area known for human rights violations.
While some may say these tragedies are happening in developing nations where safety standards are subpar, that’s not always the case. In April, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) reported a staggering 355 safety violations during special inspections of 20 mines in 15 states. In one case, a single mine received 67 citations.
Along with greater sensitivities to environmental issues—and the perception that resource sector work is invariably dirty and difficult—such safety concerns make it harder to recruit fresh talent. Younger persons entering the workforce are more aware of safety issues in the resource sector than ever before.
Another sector that’s finding hiring increasingly difficult is forestry, which is not without its own safety challenges. These include working in extreme heat or cold, high risk of falls on uneven terrain, biological hazards from animals, plants, and insects, and the dangers of operating chainsaws and other equipment. And like mining, oil and gas, coal, forestry, and logging, the pulp and paper sector is also finding it challenging to recruit new workers.
Along with a lack of new recruits, the resource sector presents unique challenges to its existing workers. Working in remote locations distant from family and friends, and often putting in long shifts, resource sector workers are prone to stress, sleeplessness, feelings of isolation and depression, and physical and mental exhaustion. Physically, there is the risk of workplace injuries and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) from repetitive tasks. To cope, some employees, men and women alike, may turn to substance abuse in the form of drugs and alcohol or other risky self-medication.
Some resource sector workers face other issues. A 2021 study conducted by Virginia’s Black Lung Clinic at Stone Mount Health Services resulted in calls for better mental health provisions. This came after the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine reported that over a third of current and former miners with black lung are dealing with depression. More than one in 10 of those surveyed also said they have considered suicide.
Even with organizations focused on making work safer, such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), physical and mental risks remain. However, good progress has been made with tools such as safety training and protective equipment to protect the body; and, now, more resource sector companies are creating programs to support mental health.
In Canada, one of the most recent was implemented for workers at the Detour Lake Mine in Ontario. Since it was introduced, the mental health program has expanded to the company’s offices in Timmins and its Macassa mine in Kirkland Lake.
Helping resource sector workers cope with mental and physical stress is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach since all issues are unique. Fortunately, there is an increased awareness of the challenges that come from working in the sector, and companies are taking a more active role, starting at the corporate level.
PPE for body and mind
One of the biggest hurdles is overcoming the stigma of needing help for mental health. Just as bodies are outfitted with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, helmets, and boots, the mind must be equally protected. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
Some companies are championing employee-driven programs, tapping into the experiences of long-time workers who themselves struggled with job site depression, anxiety, or anger issues. These programs, which often take the form of weekly meetings held in a supportive, non-judgmental environment, allow staff members to speak freely about their challenges and be assured they are not alone.
Along with tapping into internal assistance, more resource companies are using experts from organizations like Workplace Safety North (WSN). A not-for-profit association, WSN was established by the Ontario government and serves to “provide approved health and safety training and services to the mining and forest products industries,” according to its website.
One of the strengths of WSN is providing mental health awareness training for new worker orientation programs. Other groups, including the non-profit Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), also provide programs, resources, and advocacy supporting mental health, and they work to challenge perceptions in the industry.
The resource sector is at a point unlike any other in its history, one bursting with contradictions. On the one hand, there is a worldwide push for carbon reduction, greater respect for nature, and a cleaner environment. On the other, the need to feed the demand for electric vehicle (EV) production and its associated minerals means that even a greener future will still necessitate mining and other extractive processes.
The challenge, then, is to provide the workers in these industries with the utmost in care, safety, and appropriate protections. The future of PPE is promising, combining AI with technologies like wireless methane sensors, proximity detection systems, temperature, heart rate, and respiration sensors, and more. The next step is making sure that we are safeguarding workers’ mental health as well as the physical.