With any change, there is always someone who believes that the old ways are still the best.
So it is with Bob Mack. Despite Ontario’s introduction last year of the trimmed-down common core training that will take potential miners only three days to obtain certification, the vice-president of community, business development and employment services at Northern College of Applied Arts and Technology in Timmins, Ontario, decided that the school will continue offering a full-featured, 12-week training course.
“You get a more skilled, more qualified individual after the 12 weeks. They have the time to prove themselves and have that practical experience that you can’t get from a shorter program,” Mack says.
Starting in 2012, those looking to enter the underground hard rock mining industry saw the barrier to entry lowered significantly. Before that, participants had to complete 13 modules before they were qualified to work underground.
As a result of consultations that began in May of 2011, changes from the ministry’s mining tripartite committee saw the six-to 12-week course being shrunk to around three days. It is now up to employers to identify any additional, specialized training their workers may need and get them certified.
The ministry, along with industry representatives, believe the change was needed to update an antiquated program. “What used to be common 20 years ago is not common anymore because of the mechanized way we mine,” says Glenn Staskus, provincial mining specialist with the Ministry of Labour. “There are a number of different tasks related to mining that all miners no longer perform.” He cites drilling, blasting and building wooden or mechanical staging as examples.
Staskus adds that the common core training course has been reconfigured so that new employees would be given a more robust orientation and hazard awareness training. They include identification of hazards and ground conditions, how to scale loose rock, a background understanding of the mining operation and emergency preparedness procedures.
One driver to whittling down the program was the need to respond to changing labour demands and attract more workers to the underground mining industry, which employed more than 16,000 workers in Ontario in 2011.
It is also meant to aid smaller employers and contractors who hire those coming out of high school and post-secondary colleges, offers Steve Ball, manager of talent management and people development at Vale in Toronto.
“The well-intentioned and well-designed program from almost three decades ago now had not kept pace with the changes in the mining industry,” contends Ball, who is one of the representatives in the mining tripartite committee.
Staskus says the condensed training makes it easier for workers from different industries — such as those in the forestry sector, which has seen a downturn — to move into the mining sector. As many of the skills are transferrable, equipment operators can work in an underground environment as long as they have good hazard awareness and are taught to drive the different machinery.
Richard Paquin, president of Canadian Auto Workers/Mine Mill Local 598 in Sudbury, says he thinks that the abridged program “allows our workers to more quickly be able to work underground.”
While workers are getting less practical, hands-on experience before going underground, Ball does not think that this will pose a safety issue as the modified common core courses have addressed any potential knowledge gaps. He cites the elements in the drilling and blasting module have been built into the first three modules to make sure people have that level of awareness. “If they are asked to guard a blast, they know what their obligations are,” Ball says.
Teaching every miner skills they may never use could have its pitfalls, Ball suggests. As the training certificates are valid for life, a miner could possess a ticket that says they are certified in a practice that they have not done for years.
Mack says the Northern College’s decision to run the 12-week program is driven by industry need. Major mining companies, such as Goldcorp and Richmont, are among the employers who hire from the school’s graduates.
Noting that the six-person classes typically have 30 to 50 applicants, he reports that they have not seen a decline in the number of applicants — many of whom come from the Second Career program of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which provides financial support for laid-off workers.
Unlike mining in the past, Ball says miners today tend to specialize in a particular area in the workplace. “Once people get proficient in something and they find a series of tasks they really enjoy, they tend to stay in that work.”
While Northern College has no immediate plans to reduce the course load on its students, Mack does not think that the cutback to the training duration will undermine safety in underground mines. “They are covering what is in the legislation and as long [as] what the mine is doing in terms of legislation and skills development, I don’t see a problem.”
Greg Burchell is assistant editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.