Mining overseas: staying safe in complex work environments
For many people in the extractives industry, the opportunity to live and work overseas would be a career highlight. Australian mining companies are represented in just about every corner of the world and Australian miners are sought after for their experience and work ethic.
Whether it is a fly-in, fly-out job in Papua New Guinea or a residential role in Zambia, working overseas can be exciting and rewarding. Immersing one’s self in a multicultural environment and learning new languages, local customs and cultures helps people to become better supervisors, coordinators and managers. Being accompanied by family can also create lifelong memories and teach valuable lessons.
However, while working and living overseas can be an enriching experience, it is not without safety risks — and these need to be carefully considered.
Health and wellbeing
When applying for a job overseas, there are many things to factor in. Rosters and remuneration will undoubtedly top the list, but it is also important to understand the physical risks associated with the role.
Lengthy travel, long rosters and working at altitude or in extreme weather conditions can take a toll on physical health. Travel can exacerbate existing health conditions and when coupled with a potentially high-stress work environment, over an extended roster, there can be some serious consequences for the unprepared.
When looking at the site, consider the accommodation as well as recreational facilities. A good diet with the right amount of sleep and exercise is vital to maintaining physical and mental wellbeing.
The quality of health care may also differ, and if workers are accompanied by their family members, it is important to understand what is available outside of the site clinic. For instance, where is the nearest centre of medical excellence? What is the paediatric healthcare situation like in the region? What are the medical evacuation plans?
Sometimes mine operations are situated in countries where the local security situation also differs from Australia. Before accepting a job opportunity, it is important to understand how well protected these mines are and what resources are available to ensure employee safety.
Mine sites are often targeted by thieves looking to steal anything of value, even if it is just for scrap metal. In more extreme circumstances, employees can be targeted by terrorists — and in some parts of the world, Australian mining personnel have been kidnapped to exact a ransom.
Companies need to make sure their people are getting to and from the operation safely, and that they are well protected when they are onsite. What is the law-and-order situation, and is there an ongoing conflict that may impact where employees are working? Does the company have a good relationship with the local population? Does it have a social licence to operate, or is it in dispute?
One area where the uninitiated can come unstuck relates to learning and adapting to the local culture. Things that are acceptable in the workplace at home may not be the same overseas and it is important for workers to listen and learn as much as they can when they first arrive. Things like swearing, looking people directly in the eyes or innocently touching them may cause insult.
While the author was working in Zambia, one of the geologists onsite decided he would use symbolism to show the financial effects of his team insufficiently performing their tasks. The senior geologist took out a Kwacha note and set it on fire — which was illegal. One of the employees decided to take the banknote’s remains and post it along with a letter to a government official, explaining what had happened.
The geologist was charged and eventually sentenced to two months in jail. He was released on appeal, after three days, with a new management style.
While this is an extreme example of getting it culturally wrong, the seemingly innocuous can become a problem for the uninitiated — not only for the employee, but the entire operation.
Consult travel risk management and assistance providers, because they have trained security and medical experts who can help companies prepare their employees (as well as their families) to stay safe when they travel, when they are on rotation or when they are residential. With some planning and the appropriate support, working overseas will prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.
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