Musselwhite Mine automates to keep miners from heading underground

In a nondescript office building in the middle of Thunder Bay, Ont., four workers get ready to move thousands of tonnes of rock, hundreds of kilometres away.

Musselwhite Mine, about 500 km north of the building, is where the rock breakers, loaders, conveyor belts and soon, trucks operate, although those behind the controls sit in an air-conditioned office.

The mine, owned and operated by Goldcorp, is a fly-in operation, north of the city. The mine has been working on automating some of its processes, keeping workers away from the mine site, closer to home in Thunder Bay.

“We’ve physically removed the worker from the mine site and allowed them to run the system remotely,” said Kevin Schiiler, the automation coordinator for Goldcorp Musselwhite Mine. “What that does for us is ensure safety of our personnel, and also helps to increase our efficiency gains through longer operating times, due to not have to be working in the mine.”

Schiller said workers before would have to be out of the underground workings during blasts, but remotely controlled machines can keep moving for the entire shift.

He said the mine ramp itself is nearly 15 km long, with workers travelling for up to 1.5 hours to get from where they start their shift, to where their equipment is sitting. Including a blast time, a 12 hour shift may see an operator in the cab of a vehicle for only 7 hours.

Operators in Thunder Bay will have the ability to run 17 haul trucks, 10 scoops as well as support gear and a conveyor belt from the office. Dispatching services for the mine are also provided out of the central office.

The operating stations in Thunder Bay are connected to the mine through a dedicated fibre-optic line to the mine, with specialized Wi-Fi infrastructure in the mine itself.

“From these operating chairs, we can run the rock breaker, all shift, at anytime we can shift over to running a scoop,” said Schiiler.

“They will log out and back into a scoop in a matter of five to ten seconds, and they can jump from rock breaker to scoop, and soon to truck.”

He said that type of flexibility is impossible at the mine, with employees physically having to change equipment, which also puts strains on employees who are moving around in tight spaces on uneven ground.

When it comes to the personal lives of employees, Schiiler said this type of operation is preferred by almost all workers in the industry. They can go home every night.

“Our personnel here were two week in, two week out at the mine site, and now they’re two week in, two week out in Thunder Bay.”

The in-town office also cuts costs for Goldcorp, as employees no longer need to be flown into and out of the site, as well as housed and fed at Musselwhite.

“There’s definitely some health benefits. Mining with a scoop, you’re in the facility, you’re in the stope. You have dust particles, you have diesel particulates, dampness, particulates, that all goes away.”

“Health wise, this is 100 percent better”

Schiiler said while this is a first for a mine in northwestern Ontario, automation has been creeping into the mining sector for decades. However, he hopes the success of this program may help it expand to other operations in the region.

“This is a good thing not only for Goldcorp but for northwestern Ontario.”

“Hopefully this will have some of these other mining companies looking at using Thunder Bay as a centre for a similar operation. I feel that mining is the future of northwestern Ontario, there are many minerals that are still untouched.”

“Using these facilities, you can drive your costs down by having a remote operation, and this could make the difference between a mining company being able to operate on a profit margin, or not.”