Published 8 February 2022

Maintaining remote mining operations during the pandemic

The global pandemic has created many unique challenges for mining organisations in managing remote workforces. Discover how this sector has navigated these issues and proven its resilience.

Maintaining remote mining operations during the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic the mining sector has endured new and often challenging conditions to continue operating in remote locations. Businesses have grappled with finding ways to keep workforces safe and operational across remote geographies, and carefully navigated the rapidly changing cultural and political climates in which they operate.

We invited Paul Howard, a lead partner in the Gerard Daniels mining practice, to share his thoughts and insights on what the international mining sector has faced and overcome during this time.

Variable vaccine rollouts

Working alongside local vaccine rollout programs during the last 12 months has at times been quite difficult for remote mining operations.Similarly to in countries like Australia and the UK, local governments are responsible for managing the rollout in remote locations, making delivery highly variable.

“Although successful vaccine rollouts influence the ability to safely operate, the challenge for the international mining sector has been that these are not processes businesses can easily influence,” Paul explains. “Many of the larger mining companies have the capacity to vaccinate their own workforce and have offered their vaccine supply and medical staff to support local community rollouts, while there are some great examples of this taking place, there has been a general reluctance to let private entities get involved.”

Misinformation is another factor inhibiting the vaccine roll out in remote locations and affecting the mining sector’s continued operation in these regions.

“Misinformation around the virus and vaccines continues to spread and create challenges for remote workforces worldwide,” says Paul. “This issue is rife within some tribal communities in Africa where there has long been scepticism around western medicine, making vaccinating the communities around remote mining operations even more difficult.”

Social unrest

As mining organisations plan their re-entry into remote locations detailed risk assessments and strategies must be put in place to keep workers safe. Paul believes that growing social unrest around how the pandemic has been managed in some parts of the world has become a critical component of these assessments in recent times. 

“It’s not unusual for some of the fears and dissatisfaction that remote communities feel to be directed at Westerners living and working in these locations, and this has created a risk profile that wasn’t there before the pandemic began,” says Paul. “Increasing security protocols, minimising the physical workforce presence in affected areas and having good exit strategies are some of the ways we’ve seen clients manage their remote workforces during these uncertain times.”

“Distributed workforces have also become the norm and curfews and other restrictions on the movement of people have been put in place,” Paul continues. “While these measures are effective in keeping people safe, they can also affect organisational culture and change how companies do business, which is tough for those based on the ground in these regions.”

Global supply chain disruption

Supply chains around the world have been severely impacted during the pandemic, with the ripple effects felt across all sectors. “Freight, transport and manufacturing in source countries have been heavily impacted,” says Paul. “These issues are exacerbated by the need to move people, goods and materials across multiple land borders to reach remote mining operations.”

“Due to the rapid spread of COVID in some countries, at any given time there is the potential for a large percentage of any workforce to feel too unwell to work, or to be forced into isolation, putting further pressure on supply chains and project teams,” Paul continues. “These people and supply chain issues have caused major projects delays and increased the cost of delivering projects too.”

“Without a quick fix, supply chain logistics professionals have had to think differently and get creative in designing alternative sourcing strategies,” says Paul. “The mining sector transport supply chain is now managed very holistically, with new sourcing strategies targeting alternative locations and transport solutions.” 

Growing local workforces

In addition to supply chain, social unrest and vaccine rollout issues, people movement has become increasingly complex during the pandemic. Many mining sector organisations are now looking to grow their local workforce and minimise the reliance on expats in remote locations. 

“For as long as local universities can deliver quality graduates there will be an opportunity for international mining operations to develop and utilise local workforces to support their operations,” says Paul. “Building stronger local workforces reduces the need to fly people in and to move people across borders. It also allows mining companies to have a positive impact on the communities that surround their operations, developing new skills, creating new jobs and growing local economies.”

“As we move into 2022 the pandemic continues to to test this sector’s creativity in designing strategies and solutions to address the many issues that it faces,” Paul reflects. “While this period is challenging, it also provides an opportunity to future proof mining operations, and to prove the sector’s resilience in many ways.”

Reach out to Paul to discuss your mining sector executive search or board consulting needs. Or connect with your local Gerard Daniels team today.

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