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Mining company loses thousands of man hours due to infections

Westgold FIFO workers
FIFO workers

A mineral producer revealed the pandemic’s full impact on multiple operations.

Westgold Resources confirmed 2772 man hours were spent on coronavirus (COVID-19) testing in the second half of calendar 2021. From this figure 63 per cent was from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing at the Murchison mine and 12 per cent at the Bryah Basin mine.

A further 15 per cent were from positive rapid antigen tests (RATs) at Murchison and 9 per cent at Bryah. An extra 1092 man hours were spent in isolation for seven days during the same period.

The employer estimates COVID-19 cases resulted in 5328 group man hours lost for the six-month period. Almost 72.5 per cent of affected individuals were frontline operating personnel while nearly 27.5 per cent were either offsite cases or close contacts.

“COVID-19 cases continue to increase across Western Australia and we are experiencing a similar trend across our operating sites. We however continue to proactively manage the situation as the health of our workforce and the communities we work within is paramount. All our mines remain operational but production is expected to be affected this quarter [by 3 to 4 percent] due to [the] availability of frontline operating staff,” Westgold CEO Debbie Fullarton said in a public statement.

Swift response

The company responded to rising case numbers through administering RATs to all employees prior to departing from Perth, and establishing PCR testing capabilities across multiple operations.

Specialist cleaning, non-essential site travel restrictions, catering restrictions, strict recreation controls, work from home options and other protocols were also introduced.

“Persistent labour shortages and costs were further exacerbated this quarter by COVID vaccination deadlines, seasonal absence and border closures. To reduce industry wide supply chain risk Westgold has also made a larger investment in critical spares and key consumables this quarter, and build surface ore stocks, to ensure continuity of our operations,” Westgold executive director Wayne Bramwell said in his employer’s December 2021 quarterly report.

New registration system

The State Government recently established an online critical worker furloughing registration system for resources companies and other critical employers. The portal is promised to help manage potential workforce shortages and ensure critical supply chains and services still continue when people isolate.

Critical worker exemptions will allow asymptomatic close contacts to temporarily attend work during the isolation period, avoid staff shortages, maintain critical services, promote workplace safety and avoid death or other catastrophic losses.

Faster, cheaper testing

Meanwhile, Curtin University and medical technology company Avicena are trialling a new COVID-19 screening system to detect COVID-19 in fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workforces.

The Sentinel Surveillance DETECT study will regularly screen up to 4000 FIFO workers an hour through state-of-the-art RT-LAMP chemistry and robotics. The technology is touted to be as accurate as conventional PCR tests and both significantly faster and cheaper.

The State Government has already awarded a total of $650,000 in grants to support these trials through the New Industries Fund.

Keeping COVID out

Competitor Mineral Resources recently reported absolutely no COVID-19 cases for the second half of calendar 2021. Out of abundant caution the business opened 16 testing facilities capable of handling 10,000 people a day. Employees and visitors must return a negative PCR result before entering work sites.

The business also procured SaferMe to supply and install new Bluetooth contact-tracing technology across all mine sites and offices.

“I am proud of the efforts of the more than 4800 men and women in our business for their united and disciplined approach which, so far, has enabled us to keep COVID-19 out of our operations,” managing director Chris Ellison said in a public statement.

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AMSJ April 2022