How Australian mine working environments are changing

9 July 2018 (Last Updated January 21st, 2019 11:18)

Flexible hours, automation and robotics are all changing the way Australian mine workers go about their jobs. So what are the trends making an impact and are miners being equipped for the future?

How Australian mine working environments are changing
“The resources and energy industry is massive and highly diverse.” Credit: Courtesy of Bäras

The mining industry is changing, as flexible hours, automation, wearables and connected technologies make jobs safer and more efficient. The Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) has been the voice of mining for a hundred years now, and has overseen myriad new technologies and new practices that have helped the industry thrive.

There are undoubtedly a host of benefits associated with increased use of technology, but are miners being equipped to deal with it? AMMA head of policy and public affairs Tom Reid explains the biggest trends to keep an eye on, and what they will mean for Australia’s mining sector in the years to come.

Molly Lempriere (ML): What do you think is the biggest trend in mining at the moment?

Tom Reid (TR): The resources and energy industry is massive and highly diverse. So, naturally, there are many trends occurring across the sector, ranging from trends in employment like skills development, training and recruitment, through to operational trends like introducing new and high-tech mining and oil and gas extraction processes.

Certainly the one everybody is talking about is technology, in particular automated technologies, robotics and other highly specialised technologies aiming to make resources processes safer, cleaner and more efficient.

ML: How is technology improving mining?

TR: Development of high technologies is creating a large-scale demographic shift in the skills and expertise required in the resources and energy industry. For example, remote operating centres (ROCs) are increasingly centralising operational and technical expertise in CBD hubs, with direct connectivity to remote mine sites where fewer personnel remain on site.

Automation technologies, including advanced robotics and unmanned vehicles and machinery, is another broad area revolutionising skills needs in the industry. Such technologies are increasingly removing human beings from the front line in the resources extraction process, resulting in enormous improvements in safety, productivity and efficiency.

ML: What will automation mean for mining jobs in Australia?

TR: These technology developments are not leading to job losses in the industry, but are rather creating a different type of ‘future resources worker’ – one based on computing, robotics, digitisation and other technical skills, and less reliant on traditional blue collar manual labour roles located on-site.

This trend requires government responses on multiple levels, including policies to support regional economies through the transition away from having large numbers of blue collar workers located in their townships, towards new high-tech skills and expertise more centrally located in major cities.

ML: What are the benefits of flexible working environments in the mining sector?

TR: Increasing desires for flexible work of new generations of Australians is a big part in shaping the future of work. The resources and energy industry is not immune to broad generational and societal trends towards more dynamic and fluid ways to engage in employment. This includes contracting, working across multiple employers, job sharing and ideas-based collaboration across the internet.

While the resources and energy industry is very diverse and traditionally has involved many different modes of work, the aforementioned technological advancements are seeing the industry even further able to modernise and meet the evolving needs of the modern day Australian who seeks non-traditional employment arrangements.

This has also seen the Australian resource industry diversify its workforce demographics to better reflect broader society, especially in the area of female employment.

ML: Are miners being equipped for the future?

TR: Australia’s resources and energy employers are well aware that the future of work in our sector will be characterised by further technology developments leading to demographic changes in the skills, education and technical abilities of future workforces. This will coincide with increased demands from ‘the worker of the future’ for flexibility in their employment arrangements.

Historically, the resources and energy industry has been a driver of technological innovation and development in Australia. Perhaps the best modern example of this has been the recent growth in Australia’s mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector which has seen our nation develop a global reputation for being innovative – successfully developing and commercialising high-quality, cutting edge technologies for the mining sector, both within Australia and internationally.

So miners and oil and gas operators are indeed becoming equipped for the future, as is necessary for their long-term competitiveness and sustainability.

ML: As many countries look to limit their environmental impact, and cut back on CO2 emissions it has been suggested that a global shift away from coal is taking place, are you optimistic about mining’s future in Australia?

TR: We don’t agree that there is a global shift away from coal. Indeed, in many developed countries governments and industries are exploring all options for their future energy mix, including development of cleaner technologies and renewables. However, coal remains the most reliable and widely used source of energy generation, by far, followed by LNG (liquefied natural gas) which Australia is also emerging as a dominant world player in.

The International Energy Agency, for example, has consistently forecast that the world’s demand for coal is rising significantly. This is driven by the ongoing development of China and India, as well as more developed nations which continue to use traditional coal-fired power stations as well as high-efficiency low emission coal plants.

More generally, the Australian resources and energy industry remains one of the pillars of our national economy. Although some interest groups like to forget it, the fact remains we are a primary producing nation and resources comprise a majority of our exports.

The Australian resources industry directly generates more than 8% of Australia’s GDP, with around 50% of the value of all Australian exports coming from the resources industry. In 2015- 2016, the value of Australian resource exports was $157.1bn.

This is projected to increase to $232bn in 2020-2021. AMMA members across the resources and energy industry are responsible for a significant level of Australian employment.

The resources extraction and services industry directly employs 222,300 people. Adding resource-related construction and manufacturing, the industry directly accounts for 4% of total employment in Australia. Considering the significant flow-on benefits of the sector, an estimated 10% of our national workforce, or 1.1 million Australians, are employed as a result of the resources industry.

So to conclude, the resources industry is, and will remain, a major pillar of the national economy. Its success will be critical to what Australia can achieve as a society in the 21st Century and beyond.

ML: As it’s your centenary this year, what is the single biggest way you think AMMA’s role in the mining sector has changed since its creation?

TR: In AMMA’s 100 years of operating, our organisation has been at the forefront of assisting employers to manage impacts of technology and other changes in their workplaces, and such changes have proven overwhelmingly positive for our industry and led to significant improvements in safety, productivity, efficiencies and growth – both economic and employment.

AMMA’s success over a century comes down to evolving with the industry and being adaptable in order to meet the needs of our members. Put simply, we put our members first. What has been very important in this process, however, is never losing sight of our key focus area – that is the people side of the industry. It may be a cliché, but it is very true that in our industry the skills, efforts and productivity of our people are indeed our most valuable resources.

Mining Technology’s Mining Safety content is supported by USA mining safety specialists Carroll Technologies Group.