World Class Oyu Tolgoi Safety

By Julian Dierkes

{Disclosure: I was invited to visit Oyu Tolgoi by the company and enjoyed their hospitality.}

In press releases, but also media accounts, Oyu Tolgoi is often described as a “world-class” deposit. To the extent that this meant anything to me, I mostly associated it with the size of the deposit. A visit to the site made me realize that “world-class” is also a corporate ambition for the operation of the mine.

I say this based on a comparison to a handful of other mines that I have previously visited in Canada, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. These mines have been of varying scale and have involved a variety of operators with open pits as well as underground operations.

First Impressions

At first, it seems quite incongruous to arrive at the Oyu Tolgoi site. A short drive from the ger-shaped airport (gerport?) leads through a fairly typical Gobi landscape. At the moment there are a lot more grasses based on last year’s unusual rainfall, but what was most notable to me on the approach was how ordinary the landscape is. Somehow my eye and my searched for hints of a great treasure of copper and other minerals, but couldn’t find it. Of course, in the history of the discovery of Oyu Tolgoi, exposed rocks containing copper not only played a role, but likely also serve as the origin or the name of the site, turquoise hill. Yet, that hill was just a small peak, and a layperson like me would not have imagined a large mineral deposit on site.

On arrival, I am not surprised to be asked to blow into a breathalyzer. This is standard practice at many – though not all – mines. We sign in and are issued with visitor passes. Security is not tight in the way that it is at gold mines, but the entry onto the site already hints at the scale of the operation at OT.

The next impression is that the traffic system resembles that of a small city, just with a lot more trucks and with SUVs that have springy flags attached. A road system complete with stop signs, directional signs, etc. Yes, of course one has to get around even on a mine site, but it is the extensiveness that comes as a surprise. Power lines criss-cross the entire site. Ger camps, container-style housing, and administrative buildings are visible, many people are moving around and between them.

Operations

During tours of the underground operation, the open pit, and processing, two aspects struck me in particular: safety and the intensity of the application of data (analysis). Below I write about risk management, with a follow-up post on ubiquitous data applications to come.

Safety

I had first encountered Rio Tinto’s self-imposed “obsession” with safety at meetings in the Monnis Tower in Ulaanbaatar. At the first encounter, starting a meeting with a safety reminder by the meeting host or chair seemed a bit quaint and even stilted. But as I encountered this more often, it made more and more sense to normalize reminders for safety concerns, even when these might be seasonal health issues or the ever-present “fasten your seat belts” reminder. I was actually so interested in this idea of a consistent message to begin meetings that was fundamental to operations that I introduced this in my own university administrative practice, though not focused on safety, rather on a central aim of the faculty that I work with.

But OT takes the focus on safety to another level that I had not seen at other sites.

Yes, our van driver actually waited until hearing a clear <click> from the seat belts, but he also came to a full stop at every stop sign. Parking with the front tires in a bit of a dip is relatively common practice on mining sites.

But even more noticeable is the “critical risk management” approach that has been adopted at OT.

 

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Mine rescue service is obviously also part odd risk management at OT.

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A set categorization of 19 risks that employees face has been developed and everyone is reminded of these risks throughout the site. Risks are associated with graphic signage and these signs are EVERYWHERE. I can only imagine that these signs become part of the landscape for employees and are not as noticeable as they are to the first-time visitor, but the extent to which they consistently appear everywhere is a reminder of how seriously this issue is taken. Obviously, we were required to wear hard-hats, steel-toed shoes, safety vests, and goggles, and the briefing before we went underground was comprehensive and included use of the oxygen mask, operation of the CO2 sensor, and later details about the refuge chambers, but there were constant reminders of how to address safety risks from holding on to hand rails to the giant poison skull posted over access to a part of the concentrator facility.

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Okay, let’s go underground. Helmet, goggles, headlight, CO2 sensor, and oxygen mask on the hip.

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But it’s not just signage where risk management is so visible.

In all management and administrative rooms, there were posted signs detailing recent incidents. For the data nerd, these are fascinating, but they also seemed to provide a telling glimpse into corporate culture.

Instead of having some generic safety reminders (“Don’t use your chair as a ladder”) of the kind that are posted all around Canadian universities, these posts referred to specific incidents, offered an analysis of what caused the incident and whether any injuries were sustained. The posts thus also went significantly beyond the typical “??? days accident free” boards that are common around mines and other industrial sites. These posts included photos and pointed to follow-up if needed or completed already. For example, one post I saw reported on a tripping incident where an employee was carrying a small load, but tripped over the edge of a ramp. Instead of blaming “operator fault”, this particular post pointed to the existence of the edge as a cause of the incident and noted that this had been reported to appropriate colleagues to try to address this issue.

Conclusion

OT has frequently pointed to its safety record in public statements. I suspect for most Mongolians or other observers like me, the real depth of the meaning of these statements is not alway clear. But, visiting the site, I recognized not only the depth of the effort in this regard, but also how this effort is introducing “world class” management and operations to Mongolia that hopefully can spread beyond a specific mine and generally raise safety standards.

Example of where it would be great for safety consciousness to spread:

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