The global sustainability landscape is shifting rapidly. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every area of daily life in unprecedented ways. It has also exposed our vulnerabilities as a society in tangible and tragic ways, especially the mutual dependence of communities and organizations.
Initially the pandemic created a respite for sustainability professions in the mining industry, as many mines entered care and maintenance to protect their employees. As the industry shifts back into gear in a new normal, there is a renewed emphasis on ensuring that employees and communities are safe.
We spoke to Adam McEniry, Principal Consultant at McEniry and Co. about his experiences working with mines and communities affected by COVID-19 when the pandemic first struck, and his views about how getting stakeholder engagement right is now more important than ever, especially when the mine could be a catalyst for introducing the virus into the area in the first place.
First line of defense
The first line of defense in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is symptoms screening. “Screening for temperature, coughs, coarse speech etc. is as much part of the new normal as social distancing and hand washing,” explains Adam. While administrative personnel are able to work from home, the nature of mining means that large numbers of people are required to be on-site to keep the mine operational. Social distancing becomes problematic in these circumstances, and mines must implement as many measures as they can to stay operational and keep their employees safe.
A fever is often the first indication that a person has contracted an illness, and in the case of COVID-19, with such a wide range of symptoms and the polarity of the severity of the virus affecting some barely at all and being life threatening for others.
“Mines are perhaps more accustomed to testing sobriety on-site. Checking temperatures was not commonplace before, and this required mines to ramp up spreading awareness on the importance of social distancing, good hygiene and wearing a mask.”
On mines in remote locations, screening occurs as employees enter and exit the mine as shifts are often on location, for weeks at a time. Considering the incubation period of the virus, Adam explains that you have to test when employees enter and exit the mine, as they may have developed symptoms in their time on-site.
Mines are able to track and contain potential outbreaks of COVID-19 on their site in this way.
Communication with Communities
No measures implemented are going to be 100% foolproof. Adam explains that while the measures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are no guarantee, the awareness, engagement and education that accompanies the measures, are just as important as the measures themselves.
Good communication with employees and communities helps to foster understanding and trust. Poorly informed communities at the start of the pandemic showed how quickly panic and mistrust can spread.
Adam explains that in February, a company delegation including company and community representatives returning from the annual PDAC Mining Conference in Toronto was blamed for causing an outbreak in indigenous communities in the Andean Region of South of America. An elder woman in a Shuar woman tragically succumbed to an illness with COVID-19 like symptoms not long after the delegation returned.
“Communication is tremendously important with communities,” says Adam. Mines are often located in remote communities and those communities are around the mine or at least the population often increased and settled around mines. Mines and their communities exist in a symbiotic relationship. The mine is the largest source of outsiders coming into the area, and in a pandemic, can represent the greatest source of danger to the community. Without clear communication, relationship building and trust, the mine and the community will not weather the difficulties brought on by the pandemic. “You have to make sure you are communicating with your community every step of the way. Screening protocols are evolving and changing. You don’t keep up with that without thorough communication policies that nip confusion and distrust in the bud.”
This communication takes the shape of radio broadcasting, newsletters and flyers. “Don't try and make it just about you, but give good advice to the community in general,” advises Adam. Often, the mine employs workers from the local communities, and these employees are valuable for bridging gaps in understanding. “Have them bring the protocols home on flyers and talk to their families and then share them in the communities. The workforce is often one of the most underused and powerful communications tools that companies can use to engage with their stakeholders.”
COVID-19 poses a serious threat to social license. Companies who respond in time, and take effective measures are well served by having protocols and measures in place to manage the risk. Data is incredibly important for companies to track and prove that they have been operating with diligence and taking responsible measures during COVID-19. “It is both a matter of goodwill, to help both the people in their communities and their workforce, and for prudent risk and reputation management,” explains Adam. Data and accurate record keeping will help the mine to track an outbreak and will be evidence to support that the mine did everything in its power to keep employees and the community safe from the pandemic and safe from economic ruin.
About Adam McEniry
Adam McEniry is the Principal Consultant at McEniry and Co. He is a specialist in corporate affairs and sustainability with nearly two decades experience working in the mining industry. He has deep practical experience leading corporate responsibility; community and environmental management, communications and advocacy.