Employee turnover has been a significant problem that has hurt productivity at Alaska's producing underground mines, companies operating the mines reported at the Alaska Miners Association convention Nov. 6.
The situation has now been turned around, and productivity levels are rising, according to managers of the Pogo gold mine, located east of Fairbanks, and the Greens Creek mine near Juneau.
Pogo is an underground gold mine owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining, a major Japanese metals company. Greens Creek is an underground mine on northern Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska that produces a variety of metals including zinc, silver and gold.
Pogo started up in 2007 and has experienced challenges in reaching production targets, said Larry Davey, general manager of the mine. High levels of employee turnover, averaging about 35 percent per year, were a major contributor to this, he said. The mine employs about 260 people, most of them recruited within Alaska.
"We were losing one in three of our staff every year for a variety of reasons, including people taking jobs closer to home, but also because of poor working conditions. We realized we were going to have to reduce turnover and keep our people happy if this mine was to be successful," Davey said.
The company took a number of actions, including being more flexible on working rotations to accommodate long commutes home and living conditions at the mine, with close attention given to food and housekeeping services as well as recreation amenities.
"A hungry miner is not a happy miner, and we had to pay attention to the little things, like making sure spare parts were on hand for the ice cream machine in camp," Davey said.
The result has been a sharp decrease in turnover this year - it is down to 17 percent - and a significant increase in productivity of the mine that can partly be attributed to a more stable and experienced workforce, he said.
The company has also achieved a significant improvement in safety. In 2007 there were 33 reported injuries or safety incidents. In 2009 these were reduced to six, Davey said.
Greens Creek faced a similar problem in retaining skilled underground miners, according to Ben Gage, with Hecla Greens Creek Mining Co. The mine, which employs about 330 people, has been producing since 1989 with only one interruption in the 1990s when silver prices crashed.
In 2006, when metals prices soared, mining boomed around the world and skilled underground miners at Greens Creek were being lured away by competitors.
The company has always experienced a higher turnover rate among nonresident employees it has had to recruit because of their skills compared to workers recruited locally, who were mostly semi-skilled in underground work, Gage said.
Turnover among nonresident workers was 50 percent higher than resident workers, he said.
The obvious solution was to train up the semi-skilled workers who were more stable, Gage said. The mine started an internal training program that is now producing good results.
This hadn't been done before because it does require an investment in training and mining equipment dedicated to that training, and it must be planned carefully so it does not to disrupt the normal mining operation.
The instruction involves a mix of classroom and hands-on work underground with the mining equipment.
Two years after it started, the program has graduated 11 skilled underground miners and four are in the program now, Gage said. The result is that Greens Creek is fully staffed with experienced miners this year and many of them are recruited from and live locally, Gage said.
The company has also decided to continue the school.