Mine management failure mechanisms – a geotechnical perspective
In times of low technical resources, mines must often choose to operate without filling many technical roles, raising the question: which roles should be maintained? This article explores why geotechnical roles should be considered vital for the ongoing prosperity of operations during both ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ times.
In an industry known for its cyclical nature, where boom and bust commodity prices drive fluctuations in the workforce, the mining industry has historically bounced back from busts by throwing money at the problem, resulting in high wages and lifestyle rosters.
Unfortunately, as the talent pipeline of university graduates with the technical skills required in the mining industry drops, there is a diminishing pool of resources waiting to fill bust-time gaps. This, and the annual loss of human resources faced by the industry due to several factors – FIFO lifestyle, women leaving the industry, remote working/living conditions, lack of variation or job opportunities – means that sites must often choose to operate without filling all required technical roles. Subsequently, technical teams face the dilemma of deciding which roles are dispensable.
The recent AusIMM future workforce report, A Critical Moment, examined the mid- to long-term supply and demand projections for mining, metallurgical and geotechnical engineers in the industry. The findings highlight the impact of low university enrolments in sustaining engineering courses and the long-term threat this poses regarding Australia’s engineering talent pool.
In providing a snapshot of current demand for engineers, AusIMM surveyed resource sector employees across large and small organisations operating throughout Australia. For each of the three engineering categories, those surveyed felt demand was likely to grow, particularly in the next five-year period. A strong majority, 85 per cent, suggested geotechnical engineering skills, in particular, would be highly sought after.
With JobOutlook statistics finding there are only 3900 mining engineers, 960 metallurgical engineers and 1500 geotechnical engineers currently employed, and a perceived future shortfall in graduates, this raises serious considerations for the mining industry.
Take, for example, the increased uptake of autonomous machinery. This will undoubtedly create downward pressure on demand for mobile plant operators and increase the demand for mining engineers.
This demand could be even higher for the critically important role of Geotechnical Engineers. Their input spans the entire life of mine plan and, with the current small pool of expertise and poor projections for future uptake in university courses, their skills too are set to become more highly prized.
Geotechnical failure is a serious and expensive business. Since the 1990s, an increased focus on safety has resulted in the implementation of numerous recommendations to reduce or manage geotechnical risks. Non-adherence, resulting not only in high recovery and equipment damage costs, but also injury or even fatalities, costs approximately $5 million in coal mines and can range up to $40 million (Australian Mining, 2020). Despite this, some mining companies are yet to develop or upgrade their geotechnical capabilities, naively focussing on the costly impact of problems rather than grasping the powerful benefits of geotechnical due diligence.
From a project’s inception, the geotechnical engineer plays a crucial role in determining a project’s viability and helping insure against future losses. Making recommendations at least 12 months in advance, their findings, based on the study and assessment of geological strata, its ability and behaviour when pre-conditioned and the impact of environmental conditions, underpin a mine’s parameters and design. But it’s worth noting that initial geotechnical design is carried out in an environment of ‘pervasive uncertainty’ (Vyazmensky, 2017) and that continued scrutiny is central to ‘reading’ conditions and ensuring that regular geotechnical analysis keeps the mine design current. Geotechnical advanced calculations, recommendations and inspections, though sometimes perceived to have a short-term negative impact on production, are central to understanding the long-term safety and financial implications of a project and can help define future, unavoidable, mine planning costs. Understanding the value of geotechnical engineering is indispensable in sustaining operations at a productive level, not simply when the ‘bust’ mentality strikes.
During development and production phases of a project, mine managers can use the reconciliation process to improve their understanding of geotechnical recommendations. Reconciliation plays an important role in closing the design loop: assessing performance, enabling the identification and action plan of key learnings, and identifying deficiencies or new efficiencies in the process. Geotechnical engineers play a pivotal role in reconciliation and require this step in the process to improve upon geotechnical recommendations and designs, to verify initial assumptions are correct and relevant, and ultimately to reduce uncertainty. Since reconciliation activities are backward looking, and don’t add immediate value to the schedule, they're often sidelined when resources are light, or skipped all together. Omitting this key activity, especially from a geotechnical perspective, can have significant consequences and result in missed opportunities. Just imagine all the geotechnical uncertainties from a historical design conservatively balanced into a recommendation that continues to be implemented by a site that doesn’t have adequate geotechnical support to audit, verify, optimise, and monitor all aspects of that design against the ground and support performance; how much lost efficiency and revenue that can amount to?
Time versus results value is always important, and reconciliation or even just reflection for all engineers is essential to recognising where the value-adding tasks lie. This process needn’t take long. It can be as quick as posing some simple reflective questions such as –
- Was spending so many hours on one design an efficient use of time, and how can I streamline the process?
- Does this task have a clear purpose and justification which I understand and support?
- Is there unnecessary repetition?
- Am I the most appropriate resource to be undertaking / approving this task and would it be done more efficiently by another department (with a more appropriate skill set)?
- Is there a technology available that can help me work smarter?
Each task provides an opportunity to improve and streamline whilst still adhering to recommendations. Sites which function hand to mouth unfortunately skip these validation / reflection processes, making it difficult to identify their value-add tasks. In this case, engage an independent party to undertake an audit and guide a recalibration of site function.
In conclusion, mine managers need to anticipate and maximise their chances of staying productive during both the fat and the lean times. Investing wisely in geotechnical expertise that delivers for the entire mining life cycle is key to success. Adopting a proactive approach to the broad and ongoing value that geotechnical engineers can deliver is the first step to ensuring projects can thrive and ride out ‘bust’ periods.
With the research predicting a growing disparity between supply and demand for engineers, establishing an ongoing relationship with an experienced and reliable geotechnical engineer now will save a pain point when things get tough.
Australian Mining, 2020. ‘Proactive geotechnical advice to save mine operators millions’, [online]. Available from: https://www.australianmining.com.au/features/proactive-geotechnical-advice-to-save-mine-operators-millions
Vyazmensky A, 2017. ‘The Role and Importance of Geotechnical Engineering for a Mining Operation’, [online]. Available from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/role-importance-geotechnical-engineering-mining-alex-vyazmensky/