WINNEMUCCA, Nevada — In 2001, when he was working for Placer Dome, Jim Gowans led a project to assess the safety practices at all company mines. One priority site was the company’s Getchell mine in northern Nevada. The mine had a poor safety record and Gowans, currently Co-President of Barrick, was accompanied to the underground operation by two veteran miners from Placer’s South Deep mine in South Africa.
Almost immediately, they noticed the poor quality of the tunnels. “We drove down into Getchell and I could tell the guys were on edge,” Gowans says. “And one of them turns to me and says, ‘This is unsafe.’ You have to understand, these two guys had spent 20 years underground in some of South Africa’s deepest mines. So I said, ‘Man, if you think this is unsafe, and you’re worried, I should be running up the decline as fast as my legs can carry me.’ ”
Gowans recommended that mining at Getchell be suspended until the mine’s safety procedures were improved. Two weeks later, before a decision had been reached, one miner was killed and another seriously injured by a tunnel cave-in. “It was gut-wrenching,” Gowans says.
The change at Turquoise Ridge reflects a cultural shift that began with management and extended to every one of the 450 miners on site.
Placer Dome suspended operations following the incident. The company later opened a new mine on the property and named it Turquoise Ridge. Barrick took control of the operation in 2006 when it acquired Placer Dome, but the site’s reputation continued to precede it.
“There’s a fairly infamous story,” says Nigel Bain, the mine’s General Manager since 2011. “A new employee went to open a bank account in [the nearby town of] Winnemucca. The teller asked him where he worked and the man said ‘Turquoise Ridge.’ And the response was, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t get killed.’ ”
In recent years, Turquoise Ridge has begun to create a new reputation for itself. On August 17, the mine reached its 365th day without a reportable injury. The achievement tops the mine’s stellar 2012 performance when no worker missed a shift due to injury. In the last 12 months, not only did no workers miss a shift due to injury, there were no reportable injuries whatsoever.
“It’s a remarkable achievement,” Gowans says.
The change at Turquoise Ridge reflects a cultural shift that began with management and extended to every one of the 450 miners on site. Not long after August 17, 2013 — when the last reportable injury occurred at the mine — each supervisor signed an agreement pledging to communicate consistent expectations across the organization and to promote a safe work environment.
“Not only do we expect our supervisors to be role models, we expect them to raise the bar as role models,” Bain says.
Mine supervisors at Turquoise Ridge constantly stress the importance of good safety habits and make a point of being visible and available to their respective teams. Bain says Simon Pollard, the mine’s Safety and Health Superintendent, helped drive this change.
“He goes to almost every safety meeting that we have, and that includes weekends and nights, even when he’s not on shift,” Bain says, noting that Pollard lives an hour away from the mine.
While miners are under intense pressure to meet production targets, workers at Turquoise Ridge know that pressure will not trump safety considerations.
At first, Pollard says some of the workers were leery of his off-shift appearances, worried that he was trying to catch them doing something wrong. As time passed, and other managers and supervisors began to follow Pollard’s lead, the workers began to realize that their supervisors were genuinely committed to their safety.
“The idea is to be very visible and show that somebody cares,” Pollard says. “The miners have picked up on that. They see the effort we’re making to be available and to understand their challenges. They see that we’re really trying to work with them to find solutions that allow us to be safer.”
Knowing that their supervisors have their best interests at heart translates into a more engaged workforce with people who aren’t afraid to speak up when they have a safety concern. Part of that ethos emerged in August 2013 during several widely-attended meetings on site. During those meetings, Ray Broadway, General Supervisor at Turquoise Ridge, stood up and noted an upward trend in the number of safety incidents, including one earlier that month that nearly took a miner’s life. He openly acknowledged some of the things that he had done wrong when it came to safety and challenged himself and his colleagues to do things differently and hold each other accountable.
“What Ray did helped me get back on the horse and focus on working safely,” says Mine Operations Superintendent Jon Laird. “It’s not easy to admit what you’re doing wrong, but Ray did it and encouraged us to reflect on how we were working and how we can prevent incidents from occurring.”
While miners are under intense pressure to meet production targets, workers at Turquoise Ridge know that pressure will not trump safety considerations. In fact, it’s not unusual for a supervisor at the mine to change a production target if the target can’t be met safely.
And yet, not only is Turquoise Ridge having its best safety year ever, it’s having its best production year ever. The message is clear: good safety practices need not come at the expense of production. Indeed, good safety practices enhance production, says Pollard, whose email signature includes this line: Good People + Good Decisions = Good Safety and Good Production.
Good People + Good Decisions = Good Safety and Good Production
“I think one of the things we’ve achieved is we’ve got our workers thinking more analytically about their jobs,” Pollard says. “They’re getting into a pattern of thinking about what they’re about to do before they do it on the safety side and we’re seeing that approach on the production side as well. We’re really proud of their efforts.”
Gowans visited Turquoise Ridge this year for the first time since joining Barrick. “You went underground and you were so stunned. It’s like this can’t be the same mine,” he says. “I can tell you, I’ve been shocked a few times in my life but that ranks up there with the most shocking things that I’ve ever experienced. The quality, the standards of mining were so good — the way they did their rock support and the attention to detail. You could see the effort put into doing it right. It was text-book on how to keep people safe.”
Gowans says Turquoise Ridge, which operates in some of the most difficult ground conditions of any Barrick mine, has inadvertently dropped the gauntlet for the rest of the company.
“When you look at what Turquoise Ridge has done for safety, then immediately your brain goes, I’ve just been to 10 other operations and nobody has a safety record like these guys. But if they can do it, in the toughest mining conditions, then it behooves us to do it at other places.”
While the Turquoise Ridge team is proud of its achievements, Pollard notes that other Barrick mines also have strong safety track records. Some are far bigger than Turquoise Ridge, he says, making it more difficult to achieve zero reportable injuries.
Turquoise Ridge supervisors are constantly on guard against complacency. “We don’t want anybody to think we’ve got this figured out,” Pollard says. “We know that we are always just one poor decision away from having a very, very bad day.”
Because he attends virtually every safety meeting and frequents the mine often when he’s off-shift, Pollard, a father of two young girls, sacrifices a lot of time with his family. His six-year-old daughter sometimes struggles with his absences and recently asked him why he was away from home so much.
“I just tried to explain to her that I’m doing it because I want to help other mommies and daddies go home to their families for the rest of their lives.”
Ruby Hill achieves triple zero for second straight year
Zero lost time injuries, zero medical treatment injuries and zero fatalities
Turquoise Ridge isn’t the only Barrick mine to achieve a significant safety milestone this year. On July 31st, the Ruby Hill mine marked its second straight year with zero lost time injuries, zero medical treatment injuries, and zero fatalities. Going triple zero, as it’s known in mine-industry parlance, is uncommon and difficult to achieve in one year, making Ruby Hill’s accomplishment even more remarkable.
“Achieving the milestone is a fantastic accomplishment for the group,” says Ruby Hill General Manager Steve Yopps. “I think it speaks volumes of the care and concern our people have for each other.”
Craig Ross, Barrick’s Vice President, Safety and Health, says Ruby Hill is a great example of what can be achieved when the whole site works together as a team. “Ruby Hill employees have a lot to be proud of,” he says.
Ruby Hill, one of Barrick’s smaller operations, has consistently been one of the company’s top safety performers. The mine has earned Barrick Excellence Awards for safety in seven of the past 10 years – four for completing a year with zero lost-time injuries, and three for best performing small mine. The Nevada-based operation has also won the prestigious Sentinels of Safety award and numerous awards from the Nevada Mining Association.