Leading the Change in Mining Operations

By Dr Nombasa Tsengwa, Executive Head of Coal Operations at Exxaro 


Our sector relies on stability and predictability to remain operational and productive. The current global predicament is something that no-one would’ve been able to predict until it was too late. This has resulted in a major re-evaluation of how to run day-to-day operations successfully while navigating an unknown risk. 

Businesses were forced to close their doors, and many people had to put their staff on forced leave while some underwent retrenchments. Systems have been redesigned, and processes have changed to the point where we are starting to consider this a normal part of our lives.  

The move to Level 3 was then, understandably, a welcome relief to many. The economy has finally reopened, which has resulted in many businesses being able to start the process of picking up where they left off. After months of uncertainty, we are finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Exxaro was, of course, in a fortunate position to keep our doors open while ensuring the safety and well-being of our staff. The measures put into place at the beginning of lockdown have now been fine-tuned, and we fully intend to use this forward-thinking to our advantage. 

As we progress into a more functional economy, it is important to remain level-headed and approach the situation with the caution it deserves. The economy can only recover if we give it the time it needs to regain momentum without adding additional strain. 

The reality remains that the forced lockdown resulted in a series of events that have proven to be consequential to the mining industry. From a loss of income to inadequate access to the supplies needed for operations, mines have been dealt quite a blow, with share prices dropping as a result. A once flourishing industry in South Africa, contributing R361 billion to our GDP, has seen an average share price drop of 10% while individual companies have lost almost 50% of their market value. 

So, where to next? Businesses need to use the tools they have developed during this pandemic and incorporate them into their business strategies moving forward. Only by working in unison can we formulate new and innovative ways to help propel our industry forward - not only from an operations perspective but from a community perspective as well. This crisis could be a source of innovation and a chance to co-imagine new ways of work. 

One of the biggest changes in doing business is the ability to migrate to a digitally run operational system. Everything that we used to need an office for is now available anywhere with an internet connection. This digital migration has streamlined day-to-day processes while reducing running costs, resulting in a “new normal” being implemented within the mining industry. Keeping up with digital trends and innovation will then be key to running a successful business remotely. This means that we also need to find a way to provide access to this technology to the areas that may not be aware of what’s available. Infrastructure development will need to be prioritised to support this. 

Digitising the supply chain and our entire value chain, for example, enables a new world of opportunities and fields of work. Companies utilising digital solutions can adapt to change a lot quicker and, as such, can generate uninterrupted revenue. Digitalisation has enabled all the key nodes of our operations to be remotely visualised for faster, on the spot decision making. This has huge benefits when it comes to ensuring operational efficiency, as it gives businesses the flexibility needed to adapt their strategy to industry changes. This kind of forward-thinking led to the digitisation of one of our mines. 

Our Belfast Coal Mine is the first-of-its-kind digital mine to showcase the progress made when it comes to digitising mining. Through remote monitoring, real-time decision making is possible, and productivity has improved – with a significant decrease in workplace injuries also reported. 

While technological innovation has formed a big part of doing business, both now and after COVID-19, another unforeseen benefit of the pandemic is increased hygiene in the workplace. Cleaner, safer workspaces have been created to ensure the health and well-being of employees. This should become standard practise as it is in everyone’s best interests to practice good hygiene – and with no cure in sight, is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Across all the business units within our operational communities, we’ve been ensuring the safety of our employees by cleaning and sanitising frequented areas, regularly. Hand sanitisers have been installed at our mines, and our staff buses are also subject to regular sanitisation protocols. We’ve also conducted screenings at all our facilities to ensure that we can detect the virus as soon as possible to prevent it from spreading and endangering our staff. 

The truth of the matter is that the mining industry has always survived under the stringent risk management regime of the Mine Health and Safety Act. This has enabled us to adapt and swiftly implement compliance protocols to ensure the safety of all Exxaro workers. The desire to empower our people is behind everything we do, and so is the pressing urgency to save lives. By acting quickly, we not only ensured that the lights remain on and that jobs remain secure, but also that our coal exports remain operational, aiding the struggling economy. 

Even though the lockdown restrictions have become more relaxed, we need to remain mindful of the fact that this pandemic is far from over. The mining industry needs to continue evolving if it has any hope of recovering from the effects of lockdown, and needs to find a way to align their operations in such a way that it can easily adapt to change while remaining functional. By ensuring ongoing productivity, our economy will be given a chance to recover and hopefully result in the re-employment of the South African workforce.