5 minute read 11 May 2020
Coal worker on viewing platform

COVID-19: How miners can keep workers healthy, productive and engaged

By Cyntressa Dickey

EY Global People Advisory Services - Energy & Resources Leader

Transformation advisor to leading energy and other Fortune 500 companies. Passionate advocate for diversity, inclusion and equity. Chemical engineer. Committed to fitness and Atlanta Bootcamp.

5 minute read 11 May 2020

Measures taken to protect the health of workers may also be an opportunity for companies to accelerate innovation and improve productivity.

This is part of a series of articles relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the mining and metals value chain.

Workforce safety has always been the top priority for the mining and metals sector, and we’ve seen swift action from companies during the COVID-19 outbreak to manage workplace health and reduce the risk of site exposure. Some mines have changed rosters to limit workforce movement, while others have introduced greater pre-site screenings and incentives that encourage staff to temporarily relocate closer to operations.

But protecting the health of workers, while also keeping them engaged and productive, will require companies to take a strategic, human-centric approach to what is likely to be an extended period of disruption and recovery. Five key areas of focus can help companies navigate this journey:

Understanding people impacts and priorities

The disruption of COVID-19 on companies’ operating models means that linear workforce planning simply cannot keep up. Instead, companies should consider detailed scenario planning and monitoring to enable workforce responses in near real time. The rapid pace of COVID-19 developments requires the regular review of these scenarios and development of suitable workforce management responses.

Protecting people

During the outbreak, controls must be put in place to safeguard all personnel from the risk of infection, and, in the case of mission-critical staff, a clear succession plan adopted should they fall ill. Some miners are de-risking operations through building dispersed team structures and providing natural contingencies for teams and critical staff. We’ve also seen an increased focus on monitoring mental as well as physical health, with an uptick in psychosocial forums. Mines may also change their approach to medical facilities, with some companies increasing the level of skills available on-site — we’ve even seen ICUs being built into greenfield mine plans.

Moving people

Action plans need to be created for each location, group of employees and individual, aligned to the detailed scenarios. These plans may include relocating staff with specialist skills, reducing the number of fly-in, fly-out workers and changing some rosters to reduce workforce movements. Once conditions stabilize, we are likely to see companies move to minimize their dependencies on key personnel through rethinking roles – for example, training office staff to operate dump trucks as a backup plan. 

Maintaining people productivity

Keeping people safe, while also supporting them to perform at their best, is a key challenge for companies during COVID-19. Monitoring outbreak location data and taking a flexible approach to manage resource deployment helps enable miners to safeguard personnel while maintaining optimum productivity. Regular and authentic communications are critical to ensure that staff stay connected and engaged. 

Managing people costs

Throughout this period of disruption, miners will have to align and manage trade-offs across workforce capacity, capability and cost as conditions change. Doing so effectively will require continous monitoring of the operating environment and regular updates of resource planning forecasts. Companies may need to adjust labor cost positions if prices drop and determine how to secure a supply of staff at the most profitable assets. This can be done by profiling the casual and contractor workforce, identifying and segmenting contract types, determining labor criticality and understanding termination terms and conditions. 

Preparing for recovery and reimagining the workforce beyond COVID-19

Preparing for recovery once the market begins to normalize will include developing plans that ascertain workforce requirements, determining how quickly workforce and work conditions can be re-established as required and developing a strategy to implement these. We expect to see the emergence of a more robust, quantitative workforce planning approach that is better equipped to manage increasing complexity and market volatility. Two schools of thought are likely to dominate:

  1. Take greater control over the value chain — some organizations will move to insource functions currently performed by contractors.
  2. Reduce fixed labor cost base — other companies will decide to rely more heavily on casual or contract workers.

Focusing energy and efforts to support the physical return to work

The physical return to work is likely to be staggered and will need to be managed in line with local country or jurisdictional rules and policies on relaxing the lockdowns. Companies need to consider the following questions:

  • Do you have the expertise necessary to advise on policy matters by jurisdicition?
  • How do you define who returns, who stays remote, and when and how you can activate the return?
  • Do you have the necessary health and safety protocols and monitoring in place?
  • Have you put the right operating model in place and mobilized the right team to deploy the plan to return to work?
  • Are the right technology enablers in place to support your workforce upon the return?

Seizing the opportunity for a new future of work

A recent EY mining industry webinar asked over 950 participants how the crisis will affect how they manage their workforce, with responses pointing to an accelerated focus on digital transformation. This makes sense considering that those companies with advanced levels of automation have fared better during COVID-19 than their competitors.

How will the crisis affect your decisions on managing future workforce

Source: EY M&M webcast, 10 April 2020 

The EY study, The future of work: the changing skills landscape for miners, revealed that technology would enhance or redesign 77% of the sector’s roles by 2030. We expect this trend to accelerate in a post-pandemic world, driven by a renewed focus on digital capabilities, including robotics and data literacy.

Accelerating the future of work

Mining and metals companies have responded with speed to the immediate workforce safety challenges presented by COVID-19, drawing on a strong culture of protecting the health of their workers. But the outbreak has also helped the sector develop a new culture of innovation that will drive enhanced ways of working in the years ahead. The accelerated adoption of remote working and virtual teams and leadership may have been borne out of necessity, but companies have recognized its value in keeping teams healthy, productive and engaged during the crisis and beyond. Those that seize the opportunity of this future of work may be better positioned for recovery.

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Mining and metals companies have acted fast to manage workplace health and safety during the COVID-19 outbreak. Five key areas of focus can help mines continue to keep workers safe, engaged and productive during what may be a long period of remote working and different working practices. Once conditions stabilize, miners should consider which innovative practices, adopted out of necessity, have added real value to workplace safety and productivity. Companies that seize the opportunity to build a better future of work may be equipped to recover faster. 

About this article

By Cyntressa Dickey

EY Global People Advisory Services - Energy & Resources Leader

Transformation advisor to leading energy and other Fortune 500 companies. Passionate advocate for diversity, inclusion and equity. Chemical engineer. Committed to fitness and Atlanta Bootcamp.