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Quality of Maintenance and Weakened Training

Author: Colin Sheldon

Organisations often boast that their people are their greatest assets. This is an undisputed truth for the mining industry, which has some of the most skilful and experienced operators and maintainers worth their weight in gold. However, the capabilities of that workforce are under threat as we move towards training that is shorter, completely online or simulated to reduce costs.

Companies are limiting their employees by compressing training into shorter periods, eliminating the repetition over a longer length of time, which is a proven technique in assisting memory and learning.

Tradespeople often follow their line of work because they enjoy working with their hands; so why deprive them of this when trying to teach important elements of their trade?

The on-the-job training experience for a new tradesperson is very different now compared to their mentors’ 20 years ago.

It is the intricate details that tradespeople learn from their senior peers, supervisors and trainers in a training setting within their work environment that adds greater value to their skill base than other methods. These specific tips and tricks, the touch and feel elements of the craft, are not contained within service manuals or maintenance instructions – they are passed on from experienced teachers to the students.

One example of this training dilution known to Bluefield is a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) that offers a brake testing qualification necessary for QLD mine sites, available online and in a few hours (this has since been withdrawn).

The standard brake testing course involved a full two days – one day of theory and one practical day where tests were performed on a variety of different equipment. How does the quality of learning truly compare between the condensed online-only course and the longer practical course? Not favourably.

Whilst not a maintenance example, self-escape in underground mining is a very relevant parallel whereby theory-based training alone cannot sufficiently prepare personnel for the reality of a real event.

A mine site well-known to Bluefield take their inductions and self-escape commitment very seriously, requiring new personnel to walk the 1km inclined drift within 45 minutes. This is a real test and a wakeup call for many who struggle in a simulated scenario.

An interesting example of the effectiveness of theoretical versus practical training is the 1984 Wilberg Mine disaster in the USA, where 27 miners lost their lives because most of them used their self-rescuers incorrectly. The inquest determined poor training was a contributing factor.

Whilst self-rescuers are simple units to use, adequate training refreshed regularly is required to embed correct operating procedures for recall in the event of an emergency.

Mines these days are much more vigilant in their emergency preparedness and response training, however it is still a simulated practical. It would be more beneficial for people to use a real self-rescuer to feel the uncomfortable heat it generates, the dry air it makes, as well as understanding that the bag not inflating does not mean the unit isn’t working.

Online or simulated training can have significant advantages and is effective in many applications, though it cannot wholly replace the hands-on and practical training that maintenance technicians have traditionally received.

Where beneficial, technology should be used to enhance the core practice in the workshop rather than replace it. There is a real difference between watching a video on component disassembly and physically dismantling it in the workshop.

We need to identify the most effective training methods to efficiently transfer the necessary skills and experience to the new generation of tradespeople.

Colin recently got some hands-on experience of his own in a component rebuild centre; read his reflections on his experience here.