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Home away from home – Technology & the design of a modern mining camp

01 Home Away From Home

The provision of good quality, comfortable accommodation with strong communication facilities and recreational activities is essential for a happy, productive mine site, writes Luke Frost.


Home Away From HomeCamp design has come a very long way in Australia, especially since the mining boom which saw such large numbers of FIFO workers leaving homes and jobs all over the country to get themselves a piece of the action. This article will explore the ways that camp design has progressed recently, and what modern technology has done to bring comfort and efficiency to remote mine sites across the country.

First and foremost when considering a mining camp, the company must take into account the potential duration of the project. Realistically, a camp site will be designed according to how long term the operation is going to be. Accommodation costs play a big part in the operational costs of the project, so the aim is to find a balance between ‘happy workers’ and ‘affordable accommodation’. With shorter projects, the start-up costs of building accommodation have a much greater impact on the project’s feasibility. Over a longer term the costs are absorbed within the first years, then the accommodation becomes an ongoing operational expense. Therefore, factors such as operational efficiency and energy consumption become increasingly important.

It is widely considered good practice to keep workers happy with their accommodation, as it will make for a happier, productive workforce, entice quality workers to a site and keep retention rates high.

Typically, options for accommodation and other facilities include mining dongas, units, modular motels, demountable offices, kitchens with seating areas, recreation rooms, wet and dry mess, medical facilities, training rooms and gymnasiums.

The good old mining ‘donga’ has evolved quite a lot over the years, offering better insulation from noise and heat, more personal space and better quality fittings and furnishings. Modular blocks can be grouped together to make more efficient use of space and utilities such as plumbing and electricity. Inhabitants can expect comfortable furnishings, a desk, drawers, cupboard space, a fridge, air conditioning, toilet and shower. Some camps allow basic kitchenette facilities in employee accommodation, whereas others rely on communal facilities in order to reduce fire hazards. Pay TV is also generally included, which goes a long way towards keeping workers entertained. Internet facilities and phone or satellite phone services allow employees to maintain contact with the outside world.

Accommodation units should be separated by a fireproof wall to maintain worker safety, as well as be certified W60 cyclonic wind rating, to withstand the worst of Australia’s weather. Breezeways between living quarters and facilities keep employees safe from the elements, protecting them from the outback’s intense sun and rain.

A recent study by the Queensland University of Technology* established that modern communications were especially important to the psychological health of FIFO workers, with roster lengths and distance from home all contributing factors to relationship stress.

Getting a reliable internet connection out to remote areas is an important part of any modern facility, and a big challenge in many cases. The capacity of a Wide Area Network (WAN) is often limited by the amount of bandwidth available to the site. As well as crucial data flowing back and forth from the facility’s administration and management offices, a reliable WAN also provides internet and email access to employees on a site, a connection with the outside world that can be very important to worker happiness. Generally the company’s data will flow along the same line that provides web-browsing and email to camp employees, and getting both to work reliably can be a tricky task. Almost all remote networks will require some form of WAN optimisation to make sure there is enough bandwidth to accommodate both business use and data as well as leaving enough for staff to make use of in their personal time.

Andrew Macbeth, CIO at Perth-based engineering and project management consultancy Lycopodium who design and produce mining camps, agrees that bandwidth, packet loss and latency are all serious problems to overcome when planning a remote network connection out to a new mining camp.

“The link between our main office and one remote site in particular was causing significant data replication delays throughout the rest of the organisation,” he said.

In this case, the issue was solved by implementing a software-based WAN optimisation solution from Silver Peak, which has increased the speed of the link 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 back up important data.

Satellite phones have long been the fall-back option for remote mining camps, especially in areas that do not have copper or fibre cables. A satellite phone can keep workers in touch with loved ones and the outside world, providing an important link between a remote mine site and the world they have come from. With fibre optic cabling becoming more prominent in communications nowadays, IP telephony is replacing satellite phones in a lot of camps. A fibre cable running throughout the camp can provide each individual donga with an IP phone as well as high-speed internet.


“Accommodation units should be separated by a fireproof wall to maintain worker safety, as well as be certified W60 cyclonic wind rating, to withstand the worst of Australia’s weather.”


Thorsten Punke from TE Connectivity explains that small mobile cells at critical points around the camp will help increase the range of mobile phone reception, offering residents another means of keeping in touch with colleagues and the world back home.

“A reliable form of mobile communication is critical for safety, as well as allowing people to maintain a working link to their contacts. Until recently small cells were difficult to deploy efficiently due to power constraints and the distance limits of copper cabling, but now hybrid fibre solutions and Power-over-fibre (PoF) allow deployment on a much wider scale, and in more productive areas within a mine site.”

Recreational facilities are a big part of life in a mining camp, offering employees a range of alternative activities to occupy the hours in between shifts. Tennis courts are popular, as are basketball and futsal courts. One space may be used to accommodate a range of different group sports such as these, which can be organised by roster. Multifunctional spaces, based on an indoor or outdoor sporting facility design can host basketball, futsal (five-a-side indoor soccer), indoor cricket, badminton, netball, tennis and more. Touch football is another popular choice, requiring a cleared, grassed space nearby accommodation facilities.

Companies that design and produce multifunctional sporting facilities are mindful of the wear-and-tear that courts will face, as well as the fact that they will often be in harsh environments. Designs can be sourced that work well with the local conditions to preserve the biological health, stability and diversity of the natural environment. Key design features can minimise soil erosion, maximise the capture and retention of surface water for irrigation (thereby minimising on site water consumption) and minimise the use of electricity in lighting.

Pubs or bar facilities are of course a highly popular recreational option, with the wet mess offering employees a place to go and socialise after a shift, drink responsibly with co-workers and establish new friendships. It is a widely accepted fact that mining camps have an established culture of drinking, and the trick once again is finding a balance between worker satisfaction with living conditions and having an efficient and responsible workforce, with most companies breath-testing employees in the morning. Having a wet mess on camp grounds is a popular draw for the majority of workers, but one which is increasingly called into question as the mining boom wanes and the need to entice workers with premium facilities is reduced. Rio Tinto’s Argyle Diamond Mine made the call to become a ‘dry’ site in July 2014, citing a new phase of complex underground mining having brought on a new business model.

Gym facilities vary from camp to camp, but almost all have some form of exercise equipment. From well-equipped spaces that have the look of a professional gymnasium down to smaller rooms with one or two weights machines and a handful of exercise bikes, fitness has a very important role in today’s camps.

Some employees tend to look at time spent in camp as a way of making money while investing in their health – an enclosed environment where they can focus on doing their job and getting fit at the same time.

Free weights will always be a part of the mining camp gym, with a male-dominated workforce traditionally drawn to muscle gain over aerobic fitness. However, the focus has shifted in recent years, with crossfit, spin classes and an interest in general aerobic health becoming more prevalent in society, which has also filtered into the broader mining community.

A spokesperson from home fitness manufacturers Nautilus said: “Exercise promotes health and happiness. Studies show that corporate gyms and exercise programs decrease absenteeism, lower turnover rates, and increase productivity and employee morale—and we have found this to be true at Nautilus. Not to mention, a healthy workforce can have a positive impact on keeping healthcare premiums low, and in turn save both the employer and employee money,” said Danika Stallman, human resources director at Nautilus, Inc.

Many modern gym machines feature software which can interact with a user’s smart device, often via Bluetooth, to record workout statistics and track their progress. This tends to promote more active participation, since employees can keep a visual record of their activity and see results in real time.

Group fitness classes are also an excellent way of bringing employees together outside of work hours, so a space for inside or outside fitness recreation is also important.

Security is another important factor impacting the wellbeing of an organisation and its staff. CCTV cameras positioned in optimal spots around a camp will not only deter theft and improper behaviour, but also create a record of events, leading to greater accountability among the working community. Although the up-front cost is generally higher than that of an analogue CCTV camera, IP cameras will offer superior resolution, often have an option to be Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) which reduces costs, and have the advantage of being part of a consolidated security system, so can interact with other secure elements such as alarms and access control locks to provide better, more efficient security overall.

Steve Katanas from access control company HID Global explains that a converged security and access control system can also interact with many other elements of a worker’s life in camp, making things quicker, easier and more convenient. In the same way that technology is filtering into our lives in the form of ‘smart buildings’ and ‘smart homes’, many aspects of life in a mining camp can be controlled, regulated and streamlined by smart technology.

The idea of a single perimeter keeping all the bad elements out of a site is long gone, with smart devices bringing a host of new threats. However, modern converged access control solutions are designed to keep everything in a mine site secure, from the IP locks on each door through to the data stored in the company’s servers, as well as making life a whole lot easier in a host of other ways.

Further to that, the same smart card that each mine worker is given to access the site can be used for any number of other purposes within a high-tech, smart camp facility. It can grant them access to transport, keep a record of their library borrowing, and allow (or deny) access to group facilities such as the swimming pool and gymnasium. Smart cards can also be used for cashless vending, storing a transactional record of purchases made such as at drinks vending machines and internet kiosks, and issuing the miner a bill at the end of each week or month.

Smart cards can also interact with other features within the ‘smart’ mining camp, such as turning on lights and air conditioning automatically when a lock is activated. Within a smart facility, an employee can literally step off the plane, access company transport using his or her smart card, use it to enter a secure mine camp, access a foyer space where lights and ventilation will automatically turn on (saving the company money on overheads), access their designated unit and have the air-conditioning turn on when they arrive. In the morning they can use a smart credential to get breakfast in the kitchen, access the gym and lockers, then get on the correct transport out to the site. The smart technology can log their working hours, store OH&S details as well as work history, deny access to machinery they are not licenced to drive, and stop them entering an unsafe area.

Since many of our mining camps are located in fairly inhospitable places, it enhances the wellbeing of workers to make them as visually appealing as local conditions allow.

Landscaping can go a long way towards achieving a more appealing outlook for workers to call home, and using local materials can often enhance the natural look of the camp. Using local species for landscaping also mitigates the issue of distance travelled from a major centre to the remote site, so long as they can be sourced in commercial quantities. Native species will provide a hardy plant that is well adapted to our tough outback environment, requiring little water or maintenance.

While much stays the same in the mining camps of our region – the culture and camaraderie, hard work in tough conditions, communal living – modern advances in design and technology have gone a long way towards ensuring the health, comfort and safety of mining employees, and the potential to keep innovating is almost unlimited.


“A recent study by the Queensland University of Technology* established that modern communications were especially important to the psychological health of FIFO workers…”


PROFILE

LUKE FROST

Luke Frost is an experienced and widely published writer specialising in mining, cabling, manufacturing, business and IT in Australia and New Zealand.

In 2002 Luke started working for Australia’s largest independent publishing company, Allen and Unwin, moving from the editorial department into a sales and marketing role, before becoming National Account Manager in 2010.

REFERENCES

Perring, A., Pham, K., Snow, S. and Buys, L. (2014), Investigation into the effect of infrastructure on fly-in fly-out mining workers. Australian Journal of Rural Health, 22: 323–327.

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