IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Conditions for safe integration of new workers in the Québec mining industry

Summary

The recruitment and integration of new workers are key concerns for mining companies faced with baby boomer retirements, labour mobility, and growth surges driven by a booming metals market. As a result, a group of researchers was asked by the Association paritaire pour la santé et la sécurité du travail du secteur minier (APSM, a joint association for occupational health and safety in the mining industry) to document conditions that promote safe integration of new mine workers, particularly conditions facilitating the transfer of knowledge from experienced workers to new workers.

Five mines, two open-pit and three underground, participated in the project on a voluntary basis. The integration process was studied for the entry-level positions of mining equipment operator (specifically, dump truck operator), service truck attendant and maintenance miner. Task-related training situations for promotion to more specialized jobs, such as roof bolter or loader operator (production), were also studied.

A case study approach (Yin, 1994) was used. Cases were documented mainly through interviews (n=115) and the observation of work and mentoring activities (for a period equal to 29 days). The system in place to support integration was described by examining the organization and site operations and by doing an ergonomic analysis of the work activities carried out by people involved in the integration process. We used this approach to try to identify conditions that could affect the process.

Mining site experiences show that there is little time between the announcement of major production decisions and the rollout of measures to implement them. Often in these situations, managers have to hire and integrate new workers while the mines continue having to meet routine staffing needs. Each mine has its own worker integration system that is fine-tuned and structured over time. New worker orientation, often regarded as overly demanding, is designed to acquaint new workers with the company and with numerous rules and procedures, all within a very short time. After a variety of training sessions, mainly on equipment used, new workers are given task-related training by more experienced co-workers. Given the workforce turnover, the more experienced workers sometimes have only a few months of experience. Depending on the mine, this learning of the trade takes various forms, ranging from structured mentoring in a facilitating context (e.g., specific content to be covered, minimum duration, organizational recognition of mentor,  no specific production expectations, monetary compensation for the mentor for the loss of bonus earning, etc.) to pairing assignments on the morning of the training in contexts not conducive to knowledge transfer (e.g., experienced worker has no recognized status, new worker replaces an experienced worker in tasks normally performed in teams of two, production targets are not revised, no compensation for lost remuneration). Generally, manager-trainers with extensive experience in the mine’s operations are responsible for certifying new workers. However, with staff shortages, a new trend is emerging: external trainers less familiar with the mines are being employed. In addition, though formal post-training follow-up is a concern for the mines, it currently remains poorly developed.

As soon as a new worker enters the mine, he/she is plunged into a corporate culture where OHS is a major concern, especially given the federally legislated requirement to demonstrate due diligence (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46, art. 219). However, various factors can undermine the desired preventive behaviours, particularly during integration: production expectations, performance pay, value placed on resourcefulness, job insecurity, and numerous procedures (some of them out-dated).

All new workers experience some common difficulties during integration, such as the many new things they have to learn in a short time, including knowledge of the site and equipment, methods of communicating, work planning, ground reading and analyzing and solving problems. However, the elements explicitly mentioned in training roadmaps often concern the development of skills for controlling equipment and the assimilation of safe procedures, while aspects such as work planning and problem solving are rarely broached. The situations studied during task-related training are therefore crucial for developing such skills. Trainers or mentors play a key role here in picking out locations where new workers will learn the most, and management staff contribute by offering their support. Ultimately alone on the job after training, new workers face situations they have never seen before and want to demonstrate their ability to handle them. They experience stress due to their preoccupation with meeting production targets. Communication plays an important role in the new workers’ transition as they continue to learn, and takes place more easily and naturally in open-pit mines, where work group members work close to one another.

The conditions affecting new worker integration are thus found at different organizational levels: the work group, the mining department, the mining company, and even the mining industry itself. Five findings derived from case studies served as the basis for the approaches recommended at the end of the research report, some of which are current practice at certain mining sites. Given the substantial workforce turnover, multi-skilling requirements, production imperatives, and varying work situations:

  • the training of new workers is not a targeted one-time activity, but rather an on-going process that is an integral part of day-to-day mining operations;
  • new workers include not only  newly hired employees, but also workers starting a different job, returning to work after a long absence, or replacing others who are absent or who have not worked at a particular job for some time;
  • entry-level jobs are more complex to learn than it may seem, and production conditions affect learning conditions;
  • experienced workers who are asked to pass on their experiential knowledge play a very big role in trade-related training and supporting integration. Their mentoring role continues on an informal basis after the orientation and integration program is completed. However, this essential component (mentoring) is not always given the full recognition it deserves at mining sites;
  • the implementation of investment projects can create conditions that undermine the new worker orientation and training systems put in place by companies and that impact not only worker health and safety but also productivity.

The results of this study show that the systems developed to support new worker integration cannot be limited to better structuring of training. The systems involve the overall organization of the mining operations and the conditions implemented to operate the mine. Worker integration and knowledge transfer constitute a process that takes place over time and by performing the work? The process varies considerably, depending on the working conditions encountered by new workers but also by experienced workers and work collectives as a whole.

Additional Information

Collection: Scientific reports
Category: Research Report
Author(s):
Research Project: 0099-8660
Online since: February 29, 2016
Updated date: September 19, 2016
Format: Text