Miners use on-site testing to keep operations coronavirus-free

Rapid Covid-19 screening at Perth Airport in Australia. Credit: Rio Tinto.

Timothy Ray Sewell is no stranger to pandemics. In the early 2000s, he developed emergency management plans in Indonesia and Borneo for BHP Billiton during the H1N1 influenza pandemic and the H5N1 avian influenza. Years later, Sewell was working for BHP in West Africa and Sundance Resources in central Africa as the first sporadic cases of Ebola emerged on the continent.

Now the senior director of health, safety, environment, security and training at Baffinland Iron Ore’s Mary River mine, Sewell said those experiences informed his approach to emergency preparedness for the remote iron ore operation.

“It was almost a matter of time. One of the things we do from a health perspective is to listen to the experts. Everything was there and telling us there could be the potential for a pandemic,” he says. “A direct responsibility under any crisis and emergency management planning is to prepare for things that may be of low probability but have high consequence .… The fact that myself and another one of my [colleagues] worked globally for other mining companies, we didn’t hesitate to make sure we had in place at least the bare minimum identifying that this is a potential risk.”

Mary River had established protocols for infectious disease outbreaks well before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in North America, though Sewell noted tuberculosis, which is common in northern Canada, or a gastrointestinal infection, seemed more likely to occur at the site.

“We were prepared [for an outbreak] but there’s no page out of a playbook we could have taken for Covid-19,” he said. “We immediately began to crystal ball what could happen, what if it did happen, and were our controls effective. One of the main things was, how are we going to control this if we can’t see it or manage it?”

Baffinland was one of several mining companies that chose to implement on-site Covid-19 testing. Many such companies are operating remote operations in or near communities with little to no healthcare infrastructure, and introduced testing to reduce the risk to both their workforce and its broader ecosystem.

“[The mine] is a prime environment that if we did not introduce detection or deterrence, we’d have little way of controlling [transmission],” Sewell said. “That was a critical motivator to say, we have to take the next step to find some way to effectively test people, not only to protect our business but more importantly our Nunavummiut employees.”

Baffinland sent its Nunavummiut employees home at the beginning of the pandemic with full pay, and has since put them on standby pay rates with full benefits due to cost constraints. For its fly-in/fly-out employees, the company has introduced pre-boarding medical checks at the airport, mandatory face masks and other hygiene measures. Once they arrive at the site, workers are immediately tested with a nasal swab and must keep their mask on at all times until the entire flight’s test results have come back, a process that takes between six to eight hours. Baffinland partnered with GuardRX, a developer of drugs and vaccines for infectious diseases, to bring its mobile testing lab to site.

Once the test results come back employees can begin working, and five days later they’re tested again. “Working with Nunavut Public Health and the Canadian Public Health Agency, we know there’s asymptomatic cases that might test negative but could test positive down the road … so this allows us to catch cases that might have been incubating,” Sewell said. For extra safety, employees are currently working 28-day shift schedules.

Agnico Eagle Mines (TSX: AEM; NYSE: AEM) is dealing with a similar reality. With regular chartered flights that take employees from Montreal’s Mirabel airport to Val-d’Or and then north to its Meliadine mine, the company had employees boarding from multiple locations, which could heighten the risk of viral transmission both in the Abitibi and Nunavut. After sending home its Nunavut workforce and temporarily shutting down its Nunavut and Quebec operations in March, the company ramped up operations with stringent screening processes, prevented any employees with underlying health conditions from coming to site and changed its Meliadine shift rotation to a 28-day schedule.

In April, Agnico introduced a GuardRX mobile test lab at Meliadine, in collaboration with Laval University professor Gary Kobinger, the founder of GuardRX and a renowned infectious disease expert who was involved in the ebola vaccine. “We knew testing would be a game-changer, with regards to safety,” said Martin Plante, vice-president for Nunavut at Agnico.

The lab was a pilot to determine whether the logistics and testing reliability made sense for the company. In June, after gaining confidence in the process, Agnico implemented a second unit in Val-d’Or and returned to a 14-day shift schedule. Today, employees that board in Montreal are tested at Mirabel airport, and those boarding in Val-d’Or are tested there. All samples are sent to the Val-d’Or lab, which analyzes the samples while the flight is on its way to Nunavut. When staff arrive at Meliadine, they immediately go to their accommodations and stay isolated until the company has confirmation the entire flight tested negative, which is usually within a few hours.

“Obviously people can refuse to be tested if they don’t want to do it,” said Plante. “But at the end of the day our main goal is to protect the safety of our people and the surrounding communities, so [anyone who refused] would not be allowed on the plane.”

The Val-d’Or unit is now the company’s main lab, and also processes tests for staff at its Laronde and Goldex mines. “Having the lab in Val-d’Or increased the potential for all our operations to do testing,” Plante said. “The context is quite different, because in Abitibi people are returning home every night, as opposed to Nunavut where everyone is in the same area and not in contact with [the broader community].”

New Gold (TSX: NGD; NYSE-AM: NGD) made a similar calculation when it began restarting its Rainy River mine in northern Ontario after a two-week shutdown. First, it allowed just its hyper-local employees to drive into site, then expanded to include staff who worked in the wider region, and finally made the big step to bring back the roughly 30% of its workforce that flies in. Knowing that it was taking an increasing amount of risk to use the summer to work on its capital projects, New Gold was the first Ontario company to implement Precision Biomonitoring’s real-time PCR testing. The machine analyzes swabs in tubes with freeze-dried reagents that don’t require refrigeration and can be run by a smartphone app. Employees can get their results within two hours.

“Before the introduction of rapid testing, Rainy River was a case-free mine. It’s not like the protocols in place are not working, in the sense that yes we have very strict screening … and you would try to catch any possibility of a person that has any signs or symptoms,” said chief executive Renaud Adams. “But what about asymptomatic cases? The opportunity here is really to be able to catch those cases and isolate [them] before you have contamination.”

Testing is voluntary, but Adams says many employees have chosen to do it. Employees wait for their results before returning to work, but aren’t fully isolated. The company hopes to eventually bring the PCR tests to its New Afton mine in British Columbia, which has a completely local workforce.

Since introducing on-site testing on May 10, Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO) has conducted more than 8,000 tests at their joint-venture Diavik mine, which includes processed swabs from De Beers’ Gahcho Kue and Snap Lake mines. Diavik has a GuardRX mobile lab with three lab staff, one nurse who’s the mine’s Covid-19 medical lead and two physician assistants. When employees arrive on site they’re tested and wear face masks at all times — unless they’re in their rooms, eating, drinking or smoking — until the lab processes all samples.

“The health and safety of our employees is our number one priority. The successful Covid-19 testing program is helping to protect our people and communities, and ensure we can continue operations at Diavik in a safe and responsible manner,” said Diavik president and chief operating officer Richard Storrie in an email to The Northern Miner.

While Diavik moved its employees to four-week shifts during the pandemic, it switched to three-week rotations in late August “in order to better support employee wellbeing and maintain a safe and productive workplace,” Winter Bailey, Diavik’s manager of communities and communications, said in an email.

It’s one thing to test employees — but what happens if one tests positive?

Diavik was faced with this reality in July, when it reported a presumptive positive case on site. Rio Tinto isolated the worker and his close on-site contacts, and informed Northwest Territories Public Health immediately. The mine’s medical staff worked with NTPH on contact tracing. In mid-August the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services completed its investigation, crediting the mine’s “rigorous controls, effective testing and cooperation” with its finding that there was no indication of heightened risk due to the case.

While Rainy River hasn’t yet had a positive test, Adams said the company would treat it as presumptive rather than confirmed and forward the case to the Northwestern Health Unit for further analysis and potentially contact-tracing.

To date, just two of Agnico’s roughly 6,000 tests have come back positive, but both were off-site, Plante said. If a Meliadine-bound employee were to test positive, the company would use the on-site lab to conduct another test while keeping them isolated in their accommodations. Nunavut Public Health would take over responsibility for contact tracing.

To date, privately held Baffinland’s medical staff have tested 7,500 employees, and have had three presumptive positive cases that were later considered indeterminate and not contagious, but were all connected to the same social event in another province. If an employee were to test positive, the company has zones of its site that are set up for isolation and contamination-management. It also trained staff in contact tracing, following protocols established by Nunavut Public Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“It’s not just us [doing contact tracing] but it would pretty much have to be us at the very start because these people were on site. … We’re the best people to interview them and ask questions and run that to the ground as opposed to having another agency do it,” Sewell said.

Adams says on-site testing has huge potential for the mining industry. “With introducing rapid testing as a screening tool for this business, I think there’s a great opportunity to make a significant difference in [the fight against the virus].”


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