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How safety technology can solve mining’s field worker talent emergency

As a generation of field workers prepares for retirement, the mining industry is feeling the pinch on talent. FYLD CEO Shelley Copsey tells us why safety culture and technology will be key to attracting new blood to an ageing profession.

14 April 2021

Contributors

contact-Mark Fraser

Mark Fraser

Account Director

Challenges stemming from the metals and mining industry’s ageing workforce aren’t going away. Mining Global Magazine reports that nearly half the staff in the industry’s key skill categories are approaching retirement. As these older workers leave the industry, operations across the globe are beginning to face talent shortages. And unfortunately, younger workers aren’t making up the difference. Undergraduate mining programmes in countries such as Canada and Australia are seeing substantial drops in enrolment. Together, these factors create a skills gap that will prove difficult to bridge.

There’s a massive pool of knowledge that’s about to leave the industry

While mining professions of all stripes are feeling the pinch, the situation is especially dire in field operations. At least a quarter of utility workers are expected to retire within the next five years, and if the industry can’t find and train enough replacements, continuing progress in health and safety performance may be at risk, says Shelley Copsey, CEO of FYLD, an AI-based insights platform with extensive field work applications.

“There’s a massive pool of knowledge that’s about to leave the industry,” Copsey says. “That’s going to put a huge burden on companies, not only to continually improve safety performance, but to deliver efficient and productive operations.”

Field worker recruitment: easier said than done

Field operations need new recruits but drawing from a limited pool of young professionals is far from a simple task. Safety risks, perceptions of isolated work environments and recent media coverage of major events have each played a role in discouraging young talent from pursuing employment in the sector.

“I think we have to be honest about this industry,” says Copsey. “It is seen by many as not the most attractive spot for a kid coming out of high school to think that’s where they want to spend their career.”

Companies that attract leading talent have a real opportunity to become leaders in technology

Cutting-edge technology can play a major role in alleviating these problems. The push by a limited number of leading players within the sector on emerging technologies, digitalisation and smart solutions is a start. Copsey notes that as older field staff leave the industry, companies can rely on automated tools to make up for shortfalls while they search for new recruits.

Digital platforms like FYLD are also crucial to attracting younger generations, as they allow fewer workers to carry out tasks with more efficiency. Organisations may be more likely to attract these workers if they embrace new solutions that drive safety and productivity while making organisations more agile and responsive.

“Companies that attract leading talent have a real opportunity to become leaders in technology, whether it’s for safety or efficiency,” says Copsey. “Mining has often lagged behind other industries in the adoption of technology. Those that lead the way with technology have the opportunity to advance even further.

“Indeed, leading mining companies also recognise the need for digitalisation and digital talent across the whole workforce, from frontline mining to the executive office.”

Safety for a new generation

Mining companies can’t just focus their modernisation efforts on operational efficiency, though; a technology-driven approach to safety is just as critical for drawing new blood away from competitors.

“People have choices about where they work,” Copsey says. “Anyone can compare companies, and if they know they’re going into potentially higher risk sectors for frontline workers, it’s a no-brainer that they’ll choose the company that’s deploying new systems to keep them safe.”

Old approaches to safety in field operations will also need to change. Traditionally, safety management systems have relied upon evidence derived from past incidents to shape policies and practices. But Copsey notes that this method can vary in its real impact; in the best cases, workers follow all policies and procedures, and the level of risk exposure improves. But in the worst cases, this method often depends heavily on anecdotal information and disparate data sources to piece together insights.

These systems are also based on stationary snapshots rather than continuous monitoring. As a result, they commonly result in decision-making that’s reactive rather than proactive. Instead of using situation archetypes to identify emerging risks based on policies and procedures, digital AI-led solutions can go beyond process-driven examinations to deliver critical insights on each site’s unique hazards over the lifecycle of the job.

“It’s not done in a real-time way where you can deal with risk in the field as it takes place and attempt to add an extra layer of defence to prevent that risk from eventuating,” Copsey adds. “What we’re more interested in is keeping jobs moving while dealing with risks as they emerge and giving workers and their remote managers the confidence to shut down sites when hazards can’t be mitigated appropriately.”

Fortunately, ground-breaking solutions are helping the industry take more proactive steps to protect field workers. FYLD is a prominent example. Paper-based legacy processes don’t just create inefficiencies; they also fail to provide a full picture of sites. By offering real-time visibility and allowing users to capture video, photos, audio and text, management can make more informed safety decisions and implement them faster.

“Our algorithms get better outcomes than human do, and you can standardise safety procedures because humans are no longer interpreting policies and their own risk thresholds are no longer being applied to the interpretations,” says Copsey. “We’ve seen with our customers that this technology has really driven safety outcomes.”

It’s this type of innovation that can help young professionals see field work as a safe and vibrant profession, Copsey says.

“[Mining firms] can show that they’re achieving desired results with cutting-edge technologies that blend into a worker’s life, keep them safe and let them do their job more easily,” she says. “I think that creates a really attractive proposition for workers to join a company.”

When I think about a safety culture, it’s about setting the tone at the top that every incident is one incident too many and signals a safety problem

Building a safety culture

But technology is just one piece of the puzzle. Mining companies must also embed safety at the heart of their cultures if they want to recruit the next generation of field workers. Executives need to deliver production outcomes, but Copsey believes that any employee value proposition must include achieving zero harm as a top priority, both in the boardroom and at the coalface.

“Our mission at FYLD is: every person that goes to work deserves to return home safe and well,” she says. “When I think about a safety culture, it’s about setting the tone at the top that every incident is one incident too many and signals a safety problem.”

While executives must lead the charge in prioritising safety, implementing this culture starts from the bottom and works its way up. That’s why field workers need access to the latest safety technology. Not only does it make inspections easier and more efficient, but it also shows that the company wants to invest in the wellbeing of its frontline field staff.

“The people in the field know their senior management care about them because they know this new, cutting-edge technology is being given to them to keep them safe,” Copsey says. “It reinforces a safety culture, whereas when people have paper-based exercises, their safety seems a bit like a checkbox item.”

Technology for tomorrow’s field worker

Ultimately, mining companies will need to make safety technology a key part of their field operations if they want to replace a retiring generation of field workers. As Copsey says, it’s not about giving young professionals a slightly more advanced checklist, but rather creating new tools that incorporate their skills as digital natives.

“When you look at younger generations, they’re not people that are familiar with a pen and paper as a way of life,” she adds. “They don’t want a digitised version of an old tick box. They want a new piece of technology that’s going to keep them safe in a more proactive way.”

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in safety series. To view the report and further interviews and insights into safety solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here

14 April 2021

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