What’s it like to work underground? First off, mine safety is paramount
October 23, 2014
October 23, 2014
Mining engineer Jon Treen offers us a glimpse of working more than a mile underground, out of the reach of sunlight—and cellular reception.
In this photo, I’m 7,800 feet (2,400 meters) below surface—about six Empire State Buildings deep. Working underground is challenging, but I’ve never feared the elements down there. I know from taking people on tours that being underground can be intimidating, especially if you’re claustrophobic, but usually people get excited about going to a place that other people won’t ever get to experience.
Miners work 8- to 12-hour shifts, and engineers like me are usually underground for about half of that. And you have to be prepared. You can be just below surface and so cold that you have to wear a thick winter jacket. Or you can be 7,000 feet underground and so hot that you need an air conditioning system to cool the area off.
Safety is, of course, paramount in mining. The most effective way to reduce risk is by incorporating safety into the design, which is a large focus of what my group does. So when I’m underground, I like to get around, see people, understand how our design can make mining safer and more efficient for them. There are hazards in mines, but just like on any job site, good design and engineering will significantly reduce risks.
Underground, visibility is obviously challenging, and your cap lamp is often the only light source. In recent years, reflectivity on clothing has improved dramatically, helping equipment operators see people. But even though mines are still perceived as dark, challenging, and secluded places, they don’t feel like that when you’re down there because the people who work underground are the opposite. Although miners can be tough, they share everything they can with you. They like to tell stories. They like to laugh. The community makes the atmosphere more open and inviting. That’s what I love the most about my job.
To get into the deeper mines, you go down up to 7,000 feet on “the cage,” a double-decker cage/elevator that holds about 100 people. Then a jeep takes you down the rest of the way to where they’re tunneling.
Those elevators keep getting bigger. Stantec recently prepared a preliminary design for a cage that holds 300 people. Think about that: an elevator with 300 people!
Above ground, when you’re getting emails all the time or calls from people, it can be very distracting. When you’re underground, there's no cellular reception so you can focus on the people you are talking to and what you’re there to do.
Mines are trying to reduce their surface footprint to be as small and practical as possible. They don’t spread things out across large tracts of land so much anymore. We have a social license to operate mines, which means we have to do what’s right for the community and other stakeholders. So minimizing the land altered by surface infrastructure and material storage is critical.
Mining has become more mechanized. You don’t have to be a big, strong miner anymore because equipment does the majority of the work. You're much more technically challenged underground than you are physically these days. Before you had to lift 100-pound drills, but now you're drilling with remote controls. There are fewer people underground than there used to be. One person does the work of three or four.
Finally, mining companies are very proprietary, but when it comes to safety, they're very open to sharing. Mining companies will actually bring competitors in for tours to show them features like improved ground support systems or different types of automation that make it safer for their workers. All in an effort to ensure that the mining community continues to improve its safety performance.
Often with other types of engineering design, you know exactly how your design will turn out. But in mine engineering, there’s a lot of variety to the work—different types of ore bodies, so many technical challenges—that make you feel like you’re not doing the same thing every day. And that’s a great feeling to have.