Much has changed in the average modern mining camp, from the design of the humble donga, through to the range of technological advances that employees have come to expect and rely on for their safety, comfort and contact with the outside world, writes Luke Frost.
First and foremost, a reliable internet connection and mobile phone reception allows employees to keep up with current affairs, speak to distant loved ones and maintain contact with friends, sporting teams, social media and other interests.
“In a remote working environment where many employees have left families and friends behind, isolation can have a detrimental effect on their mental health. In addition to the impact on the productivity of that particular employee, it may also affect the morale of the entire team,” Caleb Baker, managing director for APAC & Emerging Markets at talent acquisition and management agency Alexander Mann Solutions, says.
“Keeping remote employees engaged with their family, friends and colleagues, and informed in current events can lead to a very positive effect on mental health.
“Statistics showed that happiness made people around 12 per cent more productive, which leads directly to better performance and higher profits. Whether that is through the provision of reliable mobile coverage, VoIP phone calls or fast broadband services so they can connect with the outside world on social media or various technologies, eg. smartphone apps, the impact on an organisation’s biggest asset – their staff – can be quite profound.”
However, the task of getting a reliable network set up in a remote site, and having the capacity to both administer the facility and provide for the browsing needs of the employees on site, is not simple.
It is generally the case that a Wide Area Network (WAN), or the internet link out to the site, will be relatively modest because it must travel a long way from the closest substation or ‘node’, usually at quite some cost.
With the first priority being given to administration and the running of essential communications and computing services at the site, internet services running out to accommodation usually gets whatever is left over, or at least a service that is not as reliable as it might be.
One effective solution being adopted in Australian mines these days is to have a WAN optimisation service on the link, which can exponentially increase the flow of data, or throughput, by compressing files and optimising the flow of internet traffic.
Perth-based engineering and project management consultancy Lycopodium, who design and build mining camps, recently deployed a software-based WAN optimisation solution from Silver Peak, which has increased the speed of the particular link that was giving them trouble by up to 80 per cent and reduced packet loss.
Almost all mining camps face similar issues of network reliability, and will have to implement some kind of optimisation to ensure that workers browsing the web and social media do not impact on the company’s ability to transfer and backup important data.
Mobile phone reception is another area where employee happiness can be positively impacted by technology. Whereas expensive satellite phones have been the fallback for many years now, getting a reliable mobile phone service out to very remote areas has become possible more recently.
Small mobile cells at critical points around the camp can increase the range of reception and remove annoying ‘black spots’, offering residents another means of keeping in touch with family and the world back home.
“Statistics showed that happiness made people around 12 per cent more productive, which leads directly to better performance and higher profits.”
Wi-Fi services around a mining camp require access points at precise positions around the camp. The access points are basically small stations that send and receive data around the Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN).
Shane Boswell from networking and IT distributors Connector Systems says “access points are typically placed on ceilings or higher areas to provide a better spread of coverage”.
“A site survey conducted by a network designer normally works out the optimal spot for each device, making sure the signals will be clear and strong throughout the camp.”
Gaming is a popular method of unwinding after a day of work, allowing people to escape into a fantasy world for hours at a time. Mobile and online gaming is growing exponentially at present, with Australians spending $703m on games and in-app purchases in 2014.
The annual Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook forecast report from global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that the Australian market for mobile games will grow to the same size as that for consoles (all generations combined) by 2019.
A reliable mobile phone service and Wi-Fi reception to all parts of a mining camp allows employees to maintain their interest in mobile games. Reliable internet services inside each donga allows people to play the much larger, more absorbing console games as well on devices such as the Xbox One and Playstation 4, at the same time as communicating with other players on the gaming platforms.
Consoles have internet communication options such as VoIP headphones and text messaging, which brings employees into the public forums and allows them to stay connected to friends and competitors.
Access control is another area that has advanced recently, and has the ability to impact on the lives of employees. The same ID card or tag that allows people onto the site in the morning can also be used to make life safer and more comfortable outside of work hours.
A converged system can use the access control technology to open doors, check out library books, open lockers, start up computers and printers, and make transactions at the wet mess. Vending machines can use the same card reader, as can mining machinery and on-site transport.
In fact, the same technology can also be integrated with what we know as “smart building” technology, and can turn lights on and off, activate air-conditioning and ventilation when someone enters a particular area, as well as switch on security cameras to ensure resident safety.
An advanced access control solution can also perform all these tasks using mobile phone technology, making life easier for residents.
Technology goes a long way towards making life in a harsh, remote environment easier for residents, impacting on areas such as mental health, communication, safety and security, and recreation.
As the evolution of technology continues throughout the world, the adoption of technological advancements in Australian mining camps will certainly continue to grow.
“Technology goes a long way towards making life in a harsh, remote environment easier for residents, impacting on areas such as mental health, communication, safety and security, and recreation.”
CONNECTING WITH HOME
While fly-in fly-out work to Australia’s remote oil, gas and mining sites is well-paid, unfortunately FIFO workers don’t have it all. With the high pay comes high stress – the result of clocking long hours and spending weeks away from family and friends.
In August last year, Western Australia launched an investigation into the mental health of FIFO workers, with the inquiry completed in June this year. Subsequently, the impact of FIFO work on mental health is also being reviewed by the Queensland Government who is due to report its findings in September this year.
One of the largest Australian studies into the mental health of FIFO and DIDO workers, undertaken by Lifeline WA in 2013, found workers that are away for long periods, and in particular with young children, became increasingly stressed during their rest rotation, peaking in the days before leaving for work again.
This finding supports general industry and medical consensus that factors including social isolation and family dislocation, among others, can have a compounding negative impact on the mental health of FIFO and DIDO workers.
To narrow the space between work and home, site operators have been active in improving safety and employee wellbeing by providing variety in shift rosters as well as enhancing accommodation and facilities.
However, more can be done to support remote workers, particularly those working on greenfield projects or in exploration, and their families. While remote sites do provide phone and internet access to their workforces, access is often slow and unreliable, making precious contact with loved ones cumbersome.
For workers involved in site establishment or working outfield in exploration, connectivity and communication back home really is a minimum. But staying in touch with family and friends no longer needs to be a chore, with mobile satellite communication devices making it possible to stay connected when working out bush.
For instance, compact and easy to use Wi-Fi generating hotspots or hubs, now allow remote workers to use their own smart device or laptop almost anywhere in the world; for calls, texts and data.
Using downloadable iOS and Android Control and Voice apps, up to 10 devices can share the hub’s maximum download speed of 384 kbps, which is around the same speed as a 3G connection and is more than adequate for Skype voice calls, messaging and email, when working beyond terrestrial communication networks.
This means that workers establishing new sites that are still to receive connectivity, or those working in remote exploration, can keep on top of their inbox and improve productivity. But more importantly, they can also keep communication lines with loved ones open.
While mobile satellite communication devices will not remove all the stresses felt by FIFO and DIDO workers, they will enable them to stay in touch with family and friends more easily by providing a reliable communication link back home.
This link is vital in helping support workers, their partners and entire family units and can be the small improvement that brightens a long day at either end of the FIFO line.
Managing Director of Applied Satellite Technology
Richard has worked in telecommunications and satellite communications for over 25 years. He is the managing director of Applied Satellite Technology Australia, a global satellite communication device distributor.