Minto mine plays it safe

When Jennifer Byram began working on her father's construction site as a teenager, she was left shaken from seeing the suffering caused by workplace injuries. "The first time I was at camp I was 16," said Byram. "It wasn't that

When Jennifer Byram began working on her father’s construction site as a teenager, she was left shaken from seeing the suffering caused by workplace injuries.

“The first time I was at camp I was 16,” said Byram. “It wasn’t that I saw dangerous conditions; I just saw injuries.”

Byram, now 40 years old and the administrative vice-president of Pelly Construction, used to drive injured workers from the construction sites to the hospital.

The experience left the young woman with a mission that she would pursue for nearly 20 years.

“I didn’t want to see (injuries) anymore,” she said. “I just got tired of it; I didn’t want to have to go to the hospital with another injured worker.”

She was tired of tending to a cut hand, a sprained ankle or a bad back. And she was weary from the emotional pain the families of injured workers suffered.

“I didn’t want to have to take (injured workers) to the hospital and call their wives and tell them to come and pick up (their husbands) and see the pain that happens afterwards.”

“I said, ‘Let’s not do that anymore; let’s have zero accidents. And we did it.”

Pelly Construction is on contract for all heavy duty work at Capstone Mining’s Minto Mine near Pelly Crossing. In 2008, both Pelly and Minto Explorations Limited didn’t lose a single shift to an injured worker.

Out of the 1,936 workplace injuries that occurred in the Yukon last year, no one was a serious injury at the territory’s largest mine.

On the construction side, it all started with Byram.

Her father, Keith, started Pelly Construction in 1987. Jennifer started out as a dishwasher, then worked as a packer operator, a crusher operator and a first aid attendant.

“I grew up with the company and after seeing so many injured workers I became frustrated,” said Jennifer.

She helped overhaul the safety procedures for the company around 1990.

Putting down new rules and explaining them to workers was one thing, but it would take many years before the path to an injury-free site took shape.

Jennifer met with the Yukon’s Contractors Association in 2000 to begin the foundations of the Northern Safety Network. After meeting with the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, the territory-wide safety network was put in place in 2001.

“It’s taken a long time,” she said. “From getting a company president to say ‘Yes, here’s some money, now devote your time to it,’ to the labour on site saying, ‘Yes, I will wear my hard hat.’”

When Minto Mine began initial pre-drilling construction in 2005, Pelly had a safety plan at the ready.

Pelly was contracted to build the roads to the mine, flatten the land for construction, do some major excavation and then do the digging.

The construction crews at Minto had tailgate meetings after every shift, fostering a discussion between workers and managers on safety, said Jennifer.

Both companies set up an emergency response team made up of several workers from each side that practises once a month on rescue and safety.

There’s also a safety committee made up of managers and workers that meets once a month to review safety policy and the job procedure manual.

The formula is meant to be bottom up and not top down.

“What caught the employees’ attention was that we wanted them to be in charge of safety,” said Jennifer.

Pelly would endow employees with safety responsibilities.

“We would say it’s up to you to make your job safe, and then we would listen to them for ideas” she said.

Mechanics at the site said they needed a $40,000 Genie Lift so they wouldn’t have to use ladders anymore when repairing a piece of equipment.

“We said if that’s what you need to make your job safe, we’ll get it for you. And we did,” she said.

As employees voiced their needs and the management responded with action, the formula began to work.

“Our supervisors look over (a safety proposal) to see if it’s justified, and if they think so we get it for them,” she said. “And when employees see that, I think that means a lot to them. It means were just not saying things; we’re going to back it up.”

It’s the only way a culture of safety ever gets off the ground.

“When I started this, I could make up lots of rules,” said Jennifer. “I could make up all sorts of procedures that didn’t mean anything to the workers.”

“It was when they were in charge and they had to write down what would make them safe, that’s when things changed,” she said.

“It’s the only way.”

The bottom up approach makes workers proactively look for safety gaps.

“(Workers) are going to start looking around.” A driver might notice a road is slippery and call a foreman who can get a sanding truck to eliminate an accident.

“It took a worker to report a hazard, the foreman to listen and management to have a sanding truck available to fix the hazard. So it’s everyone working together.”

There’s also a rigorous drug policy on site, Jennifer said. Every worker gets a drug test before starting employment. The company contracts a nurse at Pelly Crossing and a nurse in Whitehorse to do the testing.

“If you’re running around with huge 100-tonne trucks, you have to make sure the truck driver is drug free.”

It costs $100 a pop for a drug test, and Pelly still carries out drug tests after a worker has been employed.

“If there’s a metal on metal incident on site, like if someone accidentally backs into the excavator, we drug test all involved,” she said.

There are 60 Pelly workers at Minto and more than 100 at the minesite in Chetwynd, British Columbia, said Jennifer. That mine has gone three years without an injury.

The success at the Minto site is in large part due to the partnership between Pelly and Minto Explorations Limited, which runs the mine.

Minto is very strict with safety, said Jennifer.

“If you don’t wear your seat belt it’s an automatic termination (of employment,)” she said.

The management at Minto has a lot of experience with working mines, said Kevin Weston, vice-president of operations Canada for Capstone Mining, which owns Minto.

“We don’t think it’s extremely strict,” said Weston. “We’re just focused on it and that’s how we do business. We would never walk past and unsafe situation without addressing them in some way.”

Minto makes sure every worker goes through safety training before even being allowed on the site. There are five risk programs that the company focuses its workers on: lock-out, hot work, fall protection, confined spaces and hazardous materials.

Hot work deals with using any kind of flame or spark generator, said Weston. A bad hot-work program has been shown to be the biggest cause of injury in all major industries, he said.

“It’s our strong management team that brings these safety values to the table,” said Weston. “I have almost 30 years of experience in the industry and almost 20 years of experience in management.”

After years of working in mines, the management recognizes good business means a stern safety culture, he said.

“The most important thing we can do is ensure that every one has the opportunity to leave the site in the same state that they showed up,” said Weston.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.