Roberta Spicer travels to some of the most inherently hazardous workplaces in the world. As the health and safety superintendent for mining contractor and engineering firm Redpath, Spicer conducts health and safety training and site safety audits at the company’s various mine projects across North America. She also visits Redpath’s projects in Mongolia and Indonesia.
Redpath is headquartered in North Bay, Ont., but Spicer spends most of her working days telecommuting from her home office in Bedford, N.S. She visits anywhere from six to 12 mine projects in a year.
Spicer’s recent work assignment takes her to northern Manitoba — where Canadian Occupational Safety catches up with her. She is conducting a safety inspection at Redpath’s Lalor Mine project in Snow Lake, a small mining town about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg. She is also meeting with workers, supervisors and superintendents to present and promote the company’s new Fatality Prevention Program, which includes a set of fatal risk elimination protocols and Redpath’s 10 Cardinal Rules.
Spicer tells COS the work involved in any given site visit begins long before she arrives at the mine.
“Before I go, I co-ordinate with other audit team members and other superintendents from projects around Canada. I make sure that we have our orientation schedule before we get there; plan a schedule, when we are on surface and when we are underground; the types of things that we are going to be looking for,” explains Spicer.
She reviews injury rates, close-call reports, equipment damage reports, and uses these data to look for any trends for the particular project she is scheduled to visit. She also looks for any outstanding issues pertaining to safety or training.
Every site visit Spicer does allows her to share her knowledge and expertise on safe work practices with workers and supervisors on site and they, in turn, take advantage of the opportunity to use her as a resource for the short period she is on site.
With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and a certification as a Canadian Registered Safety Professional, Spicer is confident she has the essential skills necessary to be effective at her job.
“When they have a resource like me that arrives on site, automatically, their ears are open and they’re really intrigued with anything that they can do better on site,” Spicer says.
The fact she’s usually the only woman in the room when she goes out to various mine sites and conducts health and safety training, has never been an issue for her or for the workers she interacts with.
The most trouble she’s had to deal with perhaps was the lack of a women’s change room in many of the mine projects — but that’s an easy fix. An empty office would most often suffice.
“It is a male-dominated industry, but in choosing this industry (as a profession) that definitely was not a consideration. I was always taught if you want to do something, you go ahead and do it. No matter what gender you are,” Spicer says.
Redpath is a contractor for Toronto-based mining firm Hudbay Minerals Inc. At the Lalor Mine project, Redpath provides drilling and construction work underground for Hudbay Minerals.
In a typical project, Redpath will be working alongside its client company — as is the case at the Lalor Mine.
Any visitor to the mine, whether just staying on surface or going underground, must go through safety indoctrination provided by the site safety supervisor at Hudbay Minerals. It’s essentially a safety crash course that tells every visitor all they need to know about the safety hazards in and around the site, what to do in an emergency and wearing personal protective equipment, among other things. A respirator fit test is also mandatory.
Spicer, our photographer Bruce Reid, and I go through the safety indoctrination.
Even though she had sat through many of these safety indoctrinations in her eight years as a safety professional in the mining industry, Spicer finds it important to go through them every time she visits a new mine — or one she has not been at for a long time — as new hazards, such as environmental or from new or different equipment, may be at play.
With the orientation done, our group proceeds to Redpath’s office trailer a few hundred metres down the road to meet the Redpath crew.
Engaging the leaders
Her visits are often pre-announced so people at the site are aware of when and what business Spicer will be performing at the site.
This not only allows site staff to prepare for anything that may be required during the visit for an efficient flow of process, it also adds a layer of security for Spicer who often has to travel alone to remote locations, where the roads are typically deserted and communication signals weak.
Site supervisors at the destination site are aware of the time she is supposed to arrive, so they would know to look for her in case she fails to arrive on schedule and has not been in contact with them.
It’s a risk that is part of her job as a travelling safety resource for Redpath, Spicer says, but it’s one that she is managing with proper work protocols. She has countless stories to tell about her travel experiences, and fortunately, none of them had put her in any particular danger.
Once on site, she immediately engages staff and supervisors in a conversation. It is apparent Spicer has developed rapport with the supervisors and managers at Redpath.
She says developing a positive relationship with site leaders is important.
“I am on site a couple of times a year, but throughout the duration of the project, the safety message or the safety leadership has to come from the people who are there everyday,” Spicer explains. “Our role is to make sure they have the tools they need, in terms of safety tools and resources and knowledge, so they can pass that on to the workers.”
This strategy is also important when introducing new procedures or programs to the workers. Getting buy-in from the supervisors and managers at the site is the first step in getting workers to sign on to any new corporate program or procedure, for it is the supervisors who will ensure effective implementation and compliance.
Part of Spicer’s conversation with the supervisors and managers pertains to the new Fatality Prevention Program, the subject of her presentation when she meets with the workers the next day at their morning huddle. She will take the supervisors through her presentation — before it gets presented to the entire team — and makes plans for them to lead the presentation to the workers.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the most important tool for anyone entering a mine — whether to work or visit. From hard hats to safety boots, every piece of PPE has a role to play in saving a life or limb.
Taking pointers from Spicer, I put on the PPE required to enter the underground mine — hard hat, cap lamp, ear plugs, earmuffs, safety glasses, high-visibility coverall, safety gloves, respirator mask, utility belt and a very heavy, yet essential, pair of safety boots.
Several minutes later our group is at the mouth of a cave in a truck that would take us more than 900 metres below the ground to the Redpath work location. Spicer is doing some initial site inspections and we’re coming along for the ride.
As a first-timer down an underground mine, the sudden darkness that hits as we enter the cave is unsettling. But the nerves are quickly taken over by curiosity and awe as the mine starts to come to life with vehicles passing us every few seconds and workers and machines begin to appear as we go further down the pit.
Spicer recalls the first time she went down a mine. It was an older mine with an underground vertical elevator access.
“You step in this box and you’re in there with a whole bunch of other people. It was a very busy mine and we were crammed in there standing very, very close to one another and everyone got in and shut out their cap lamp, and we dropped down at a very high speed.” She remembers wondering at that very moment, as the elevator sped down into that pitch black hole, about the career choice she had made for herself.
But any second thoughts about her chosen field back then would have been fleeting. As she looks back, she cannot imagine being in a more rewarding profession today.
“The mining industry really (takes) safety seriously and to heart. It wasn’t just something that they have to do. It’s a part of doing business and I knew that wherever I worked that I have to be taken seriously,” Spicer says.
Workers, too, know the consequences of not taking safety seriously.
The magnified noise from trucks coming and going, the strong smell of diesel, dust in the air and the heat that builds up as the task gets more strenuous would characterize a typical workplace for mine workers underground — not to mention the uncomfortable yet crucial PPE they have to wear at all times.
Spicer tries to keep every encounter with the workers as positive as possible, encouraging the workers for all the things they’re doing correctly and reminding them of the importance of safe work practices in their line of work.
“Keeping things positive is one of the ways of engaging them, because I am not on site just to point out everything wrong. I am trying to encourage them in what they’re doing correctly and to keep doing it in a positive, correct way,” Spicer says.
The truck stops at an intersection and we walk the rest of the way to a group of workers operating a jumbo drill. As she approaches, Spicer first observes the work environment and how the workers are performing their task, before workers are given a signal to stop working.
Spicer introduces herself to the workers and asks to review the five-point card with them. At the beginning of each shift, workers are given instructions by their supervisor on the task they will be doing that day as well as things — especially hazards — they need to look out for. The five-point card outlines these safety reminders.
“Most everyone is accustomed to reviewing their card with the supervisors and safety people,” Spicer says. “They pull out their card and hand it to us. We review it and we discuss it, so it’s all safety discussion.”
We stop by other workstations within the mine and each time, Spicer repeats the process of observing the work area and talking to the workers.
Spicer says the biggest challenge for her had been learning all the mining terms and procedures. Even after eight years on the job, she admits she is ?still learning.
“Mining is very technical. There is a lot to learn,” says Spicer. “Every site does something a little bit differently, so every time I travel I try to learn as much as I can about their methods and what they’re doing in terms of safety, that maybe I could pull to another site.”
Back to the surface
After about three hours of being underground, we are ready to go back to the surface. The trip back up was less unnerving — the thought that there is light at the end of this particular tunnel was extremely gratifying. Sitting — more like bouncing, really — in the truck, I make a silent promise to never again take daylight for granted.
At about half past 3:00 p.m. we reach the surface — but the day isn’t over for Spicer. Off to the next task, we go.
She is sitting down with site supervisors to prepare for the next day’s safety huddle with the workers, during which they plan to do a presentation and training on Redpath’s Fatality Prevention Program.
“It’s a program that we’re rolling out globally,” says Spicer. “It’s nothing really new other than it’s a renewed focus on our more high-risk types of hazards and the training just involves the basics on what types of tasks are deemed high-risk based on our history, based on just the industry, in general.”
Presenting the training materials to the site supervisors and superintendent, Spicer tells them it’s important they be able to convey the message to the workers. Hierarchy of controls, how to use their tools properly and performing job observations and risk assessments are some of the things they will be discussing with the workers.
The idea, Spicer explains, is to provide the site with the tools and the resource they need to run the safety program effectively.
“As a safety person I want to be acting as a resource to the site. I don’t want to necessarily be just the ‘safety person.’ I’m trying to support the superintendent, the supervisors and the workers. So, I provide them with the information and they should be able to use it in their workplace.”
All in a day’s work
It’s almost the end of the day and Spicer finishes up her presentation. There is a discussion on whether to do the worker training at the end of the shift or in the morning before they start work.
Timing is important, Spicer says, and will determine the level of attention the workers would give the information being provided. The beginning of a shift is usually more ideal — the minds are still fresh and workers can take whatever information they get from the training and practice it in the workplace. Experience tells Spicer doing training at the end of a shift can be less effective — mainly because the workers are usually tired and ready to go home.
But she leaves the decision up to the supervisors.
Day two of Spicer’s Lalor Mine visit looks busy: worker training and a full site audit above and underground are among the items on her agenda.
To an outsider like me, the day I spent watching Spicer work was an extraordinary experience. To Spicer, however, it’s just another day in the life of a safety professional.