Safety first, everything else second

Safety first, everything else second

It was no surprise when the South Australian government declared copper a critical mineral in August 2023. Copper is an essential commodity to support electrification and the energy transition and BHP’s Prominent Hill mine 650km north-west of Adelaide produces some of the highest grades of copper concentrate in the world, as well as gold and silver.  

It’s several years since extending the life of the mine underground was deemed so important that a $600 million hoisting shaft upgrade project, with a capacity of 6.5 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) was approved. The new Wira Haulage Shaft will lower operating costs, reduce operational risks and lower emissions intensity compared to using diesel trucks to go underground.  

“Basically it’s a brand new shaft – the mine went from an open-cut operation into an underground operation via a decline and it was decided an alternative system was needed to extend production from the ore body and transport it to the surface,” says BHP’s John Barnes, Package Manager for the shaft construction. “A hoist became the preferred option.”  

As for all responsible mining operations, it’s all about hastening slowly for success. The shaft sinking work commenced in September 2021 and it’s expected that the new hoist will be operational by the end of 2025. “It’s a massive project – a 1,330-metre vertical shaft that’s 7.5 metres in diameter,” says Barnes.  

In 2022, ABB won the contract to design and supply a Koepe production hoist for the Wira Haulage Shaft, with a capacity of 39,400kg. The hoist will have the strongest drivetrain ever installed by ABB in Australia. “It’s about five and a half years from when you commence a project like this to when you commission it – and that’s when everything goes well,” says Paul Barclay, sales manager of Mining Solutions in ABB’s Process Automation Group in Queensland. 

“The relationships we have with our customers are essential to our – and their – success,” says Barclay. “Yes, we know ABB hoist systems are extremely safe and the technology is outstanding, but for these long-term, complex critical infrastructure projects, you need to build close relationships and be very transparent. We will go through the ups and downs together and we both need to be able to pick up the phone and be very honest. If you foster that genuine, personal relationship, then the project will go well.”  

Paul Barclay is one of the people John Barnes calls frequently, and he agrees with him 100 per cent.  

“At the end of the day, it’s all about openness and honesty and being able to discuss anything,” says Barnes. “Even before he was on this project on a day-to-day basis, Paul reached out and we got to know each other. He’s always interested to see where he can help and that makes it much easier to deal with ABB because we always have a direct contact. We can reach out to Paul or one of ABB project managers with questions at any time and they always pick up the phone.”  

That might sound like it should be standard practice but Barnes says he’s been in situations with other technology providers where it hasn’t been as straightforward. “They’ll say ‘Oh if you want that information you need to go through the correct channels to the vendor’, or ‘Everything’s in the tender document – look at your line diagrams’. ABB goes further.”  

He cites a recent example where BHP had a question around cabling in the engineering diagram. “There were two cables in one of the drawings and our electrical department was asking questions about them. I just sent the drawing off to Luiz and we talked about it and within 24 hours he had the answer for me. No need to go through a document control system – it’s that personal approach where I know ABB is always prepared to walk that extra mile for their clients and that stands out.”  

Both Barclay and Barnes talk about how these relationships begin with the project and strengthen over the years, work aside. “They become friendships that last long after the project is done – you always stay connected,” says Barnes, who has worked with ABB on projects before.  

The quality of the technology is a given, but not taken for granted and every hoist installation is bespoke. While specifications are agreed at the outset, Barnes values the flexibility ABB offers along the way.  

“ABB is always open to different ideas and potentially better solutions,” he says. “It’s never a one-fits-all scenario. There’s always something else that you can add on or take off if it’s not required. I appreciate that they’re not just looking after ABB’s pocket – they really do look at what’s best for the client and help us to save on the project where we can.”  

Safety is always at the forefront, and Barclay says that must be as much about people as it is about technology.  

“Whenever I start with a project, getting to know the people and understanding what is important for them comes before we start looking at systems or technology,” says Barclay. “Sometimes an engineering company can be so technology-focused that it forgets that it is dealing with people. They hear half a sentence and want to throw the customer a solution: ‘Let me tell you what I have for you!’. I say no to that approach, because you haven’t fully understood what their requirements are, what they want to achieve and what’s important for them.”  

It’s clearly a pet topic for Barclay, who has been with ABB for nine years and has decades of experience in delivering process solutions to industrial customers.  

“I go into meetings with customers to sit down, ask questions and just let them talk because that’s how you get to know them,” says Barclay. “I want to create an environment where they can open up and freely talk about what they’re looking for. We pride ourselves on being a solution provider, so we must listen to the customer first to understand what solution they want and not just give him what we have!”  

Of course, safety is core to every discussion. “As we get to know the customer and start to understand their requirements, we also explain ABB’s stance on mine safety, hoist safety and the different types of hoist systems,” he says. It’s a long chat. “It can be three years from that first meeting when I say ‘Hi, I’m Paul’, to when we have the actual order!”  

Barclay says the Australian mining industry’s regulations require SIL2 (Safety Integrity Level) certification for hoists. ABB’s hoists exceed that. “All three functions of our hoist systems are SIL3 certified, so we are already above regulations,” says Barclay.  

As he notes, no matter how much money you spend on a mine hoist you won’t be able to operate it without that safety certification. “I’ve seen projects from other companies run two years late because they’re struggling to get certification, and we’ve never had any problems certifying an ABB hoist.”  

“In my opinion, ABB are world leaders in friction winders,” says Barnes, adding that BHP will begin installation of the winder late in 2024. “The winder is in the final stages of manufacturing and will be delivered to our site early in 2024 then, concurrently with the continuing sinking of the shaft, we’ll get the winder building erected and install the winder.”  

While both ABB and BHP are looking forward to the day the new shaft is operational, the main goal for both companies trumps all others: “Safety always comes first.”

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