Speaker Spotlight: Neil Bar, Gecko Geotechnics
Earlier this month we caught up with Neil Bar of Gecko Geotechnics. Neil, a Geotechnical Engineer, is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Open Pit Operators Conference, held in Perth July 25-26.
What are common misconceptions about ground and slope failures?
That they are preventable; in many cases they are not preventable since ground investigations were limited and there are gaps and deficiencies in geological, structure, rock mass, groundwater models and slope stability analysis techniques used. Slope failures are (for now) an inevitable part of economic pit design – but they must be managed to prevent harm and with contingency plans to continue operating safely.
Do you feel zero harm is a realistic target?
Specific to ground (slope or pit wall) failure risks, with a comprehensive risk management process and multiple layers of defence, absolutely yes!
Do you feel there’s an inverse relationship between safety and unlocking resource value?
No, I do not think the relationship is inverse, but I think perception amongst mine management and many geotechnical engineers is that it is... Geotechnical design and higher factors of safety attained with shallower slope angles are typically less economical, but are not necessarily ‘more safe’. Higher safety in the form of robust risk management (e.g. 24-7 pit wall monitoring and response plans) helps push the limits of pit slope design. Value can be unlocked by operating under more control, more safely. A steep slope design with a higher risk of slope failure can be well monitored to prevent harm. It is likely more economical. Such a mine, with a higher likelihood of failure is often more ‘safe’ than a mine with less perceivable risk due to lower wall angles and less focus on risk management during the execution phase.
If people recall just one thing from your presentation, what do you hope that would be?
The economic opportunity a talented geotechnical engineer can bring to your mining operation through proactive risk management and following an appropriate rock mechanics work flow (similar to a PDCA – plan do check act).
Is there an unpopular, unusual or unexpected opinion or finding you think might surprise people about your presentation?
Geotechnical engineers need to manage safety without always being a road block or playing the victim. They need to start learning to talk to mine management using dollars rather than technical terms. For example, the cost of purchasing a monitoring radar is <$1M, renting is less; a steeper slope design that can safely be achieved with more control could easily save >$10M in waste stripping, and even more in additional ore recovery. Notwithstanding this, when a safety threat or significant damage to a mining operation is identified, geotechnical engineers must remain steadfast with risk management.
Why do you think it's important for open pit professionals to continue their professional development?
Geotechnical engineers are often civil or mining engineers or geologist who ‘fell into’ the role. They need more education by means of a Masters Degree to understand rock mechanics and be able to deliver technical aspects of their work. They also need to stay abreast of developments, particularly for monitoring systems and how other mines manage risk. The field of geotechnical engineering / rock mechanics was only modernized in the 1970s and is still evolving – rapidly. Conferences should be mandatory – see what others are doing, meet, mingle and get inspired to innovate and improve. Failure to continue with CPD for geotechnical engineers often results in them getting stuck in their ways and becoming a road block/victim as mentioned above.