Across the world, the levels of occupational stress facing geotechnical specialists is increasing, with many mining experts desperately searching for new ways to manage staff engagement and retention.

According to Principal Consultant for Cartledge Mining and Geotechnics (CM&G) Tim Cartledge, there are usually some common culprits behind the stresses faced by industry field experts.

Environmental factors including remote deployment and being separated for long periods from friends and family, coupled with managing the increasing levels of complex and responsive tasks, are often associated with fatigue, burnout and the subsequent resignation.

“The load of work that can be imposed upon geotechnical engineers can be overwhelming if not adequately monitored and managed,” Tim said. “Every effort should be made where feasible to minimise the risks of stress overload for site-based experts and in ensuring they are able to deliver on their safety-critical work.

The Principal Consultant has advised for many major mining companies across the globe and said that there was a common thread in feedback from geotechnical engineers facing burnout.

“Firstly, you’ve got to realise that geotechnical engineers love what they do as there is an element of sacrifice in every deployment; they are often working on remote mine sites for extended periods of time away from friends, family and routine activities.

“The second consideration is the already heavy weight of responsibility of ensuring the safety of the mine and its people and balancing that critical work with the increasing pressure of more task-based requests which can be time laborious.”

It is usual for geotechnical engineers to perform many tasks simultaneously. They can be on radar watch, undertake frequent inspections and meet with different departments in addressing issues as they arise.

“The expertise of a geotechnical engineer is usually associated with short to long-term design and reporting, but more and more gets lumped on them while onsite,” Tim said. “The ideal split of work is around 50-50 reactive/proactive but if the mine isn’t operating efficiently and the engineers are always working on reactive type tasks, this is not an environment conducive to retaining happy and engaged staff.

“Over time, this burning out will become turnover and a loss of intellectual property. This loss of IP is extremely costly to sites and usually equals an overextension in the forecasted costs of the operation through sub-optimal geotechnical performance.”

Recently while working in a review role for a client, Tim identified potential overwork of the site-based geotechnical engineers. The IP he adopted in the assessment process is now being pioneered across the CM&G business.

“Operators often approach us to help them find ways in supporting geotechnical engineers to reduce their burgeoning task lists.

“The IP we use to assess this true time-movement is actually quite simple,” Tim said. “And, while the assessment findings haven’t really surprised us, the data generated has certainly validated the need for true time/movement modelling to prevent expert burnout and in minimising the chances of profit leakage owing to sub-optimal performance.”

The study documented the tasks undertaken on a weekly basis and broke them down into various nominal tasks undertaken on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. These tasks were taken from the LEAN tasks that the site geotechnical engineers should have been undertaking.

The outcome showed that the engineer was working an average of 13-14 hours per day over a period of months, and with 95 per cent of their time diverted to reactive engineering advice.

“We needed to move that engineer towards investing more time in undertaking design that mitigated geotechnical risk rather than reacting to hazards. We provided a short-term secondee to provide support to the site engineers, allowing them time to develop systems and processes to improve efficiency and catch up on workload.

“We continued to monitor the time allocation across the secondment and were able to achieve the 50/50 split by the end of the period. This short-term secondment saved time and its associated costs, and of course, served the ultimate purpose in reducing the stress build-up of the engineer balancing too many responsibilities.”

The project cost for the offsider was $60,000 and assisted in reducing likelihood of failure to the mine which could have seen costs skyrocket by millions (*based on standard failure costs seen in coal mining environments).

CM&G are happy to discuss their True Time-Movement assessment model with mining operators wanting to reduce stress and overload on its people and industry.