Although located in remote areas distant from densely populated urban environments, mining companies have also unavoidably felt the impact of COVID-19. In addition to the decline in coal and other mineral prices, managing operations in mine sites has become extremely difficult when considering factors such as fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) crews that work in rosters (normally four-to-eight weeks on, two weeks off), workers’ use of public transportation, limited health facilities on-site or the nature of jobs that need tool sharing.
Different approaches are being taken, from doing rapid or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for crews entering the mine site, isolating the crews to make sure they are healthy before the roster commencement to lengthening the roster so that there will be fewer people in and out within a period of time. The most extreme measure would be temporarily closing down operations until further notice. This has not been seen domestically although it has happened globally where 260 mines are reported to have been shut since March.
In Indonesia’s context, 11 business lines have been granted exemptions from the requirement to temporarily close down during the pandemic. One of these is the energy-related sector. Since coal contributes 38 percent of the energy mix (2018 data), coal mines are deemed essential and remain open. However, there are also mines for other mineral commodities such as gold, copper, nickel, bauxite and tin that together with coal and oil and gas made up 8 percent of Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018.
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The 8 percent figure may be not very big compared with the industrial sector that contributes around 20 percent of GDP, however, we must not forget the mines are almost all located in rural and remote areas and function as the economic pillar for many underdeveloped regions.
Therefore, operating mines should be considered essential and in fact many are classified as vital national facilities. Closing mines abruptly will have irreversible impacts since shutting down a large and supposed-to-be-continuous operation needs careful planning and well-prepared execution.
Nevertheless, keeping mines in operation amid a pandemic means workers’ safety needs to be the number-one priority. Standard practices such as mask wearing and handwashing habits, physical distancing, scheduled disinfection, close health monitoring of the crews and communication patterns that minimize person-to-person interactions must be adopted as well as “policed” by a government body, in this case the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry. If physical visits are not possible, virtual visits can be done by a mine inspector.
And when it comes to the best practice, it must be realized that mining companies are in different financial positions and this may affect the policies taken. A few companies may be able to afford rapid tests for hundreds of employees going on-site but many may be reluctant to do so. While standard practices are mandatory, the best practices can be considered optional.
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Mines are semi-closed operations where FIFO crews are combined with local workers to work and/or live in a designated area. As common areas such as a canteens or dorms in a mine site are used by essentially everyone repeatedly, mine operations risk turning into hotspots for COVID-19. However, the wider spread of the virus – further than the nearby villages – is less likely since travel far outside the mines is normally not required. Meanwhile neighboring villages are unlikely to have even basic health care and paramedics to take care of COVID-19 patients. Therefore, mining companies should be prepared for the worst-case scenario, which includes the isolation and evacuation of individuals who may have been infected.
The worst-case scenario preparation should also extend to short-term shutdowns. If infections uncontrollably progress among the workers, there should be a limit where such extreme measures must be taken. Whether that limit is 0.5, 5 or 50 percent of the workers, is a subject for stakeholder discussion.
At the end of the day, all types of industries must co-exist with COVID-19, at least until a vaccine or cure is found. Even if we eliminate COVID-19, this may not be the last pandemic and everything that we do now, if we do it right, can be done again when needed. Moreover, what has developed as the standard/best practice for the mining industry can be used for similar operations that are large, complex and located in rural areas where halting operations is not as simple as flicking a switch.
The writer is assistant to president director at PT Geoservices with doctoral degree in mineral processing from Curtin University, Australia. The views are his own.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.