SMD general manager stresses importance of setting examples

Keith Jones has been the general manager of Small Mine Development since 2010. The Idaho-based mining contractor formed in 1982, and now has about 400 employees and works five active mine sites in Nevada plus one in Colorado. Jones is the first SMD general manager to win the Nevada Mining Association’s general manager award.

What does it mean to you to win the Nevada Mining Association’s general manager award?

It is an honor. The competition is very stiff. There is a lot of good people out there doing good things, so it’s a real honor.

How does the safety culture for a contractor compare to those at other mining companies?

It’s similar. All of us have the same goal of everybody going home at the end of a shift safe and uninjured. How we go about doing that may be a little bit different in execution — maybe that’s not a good word to use. I think we all have a little bit different way in how we actually try to meet that goal, but it’s the same focus basically.

How would you describe your company’s safety culture?

We embarked with Newmont on what they call the Safety Journey back in 2011. I really believe that the safety culture is a journey. That journey, as they describe it, is anything from an awareness situation to where safety is more of an afterthought and not core to your business to fully integrated where everything you do is viewed through the lens of safety and trying to do things the right way and the safe way. I believe as individuals and as companies and as sites and as crews, I think that journey is a continual process, and I think that at any given moment in time, depending on what is going on around us, we are at any one of those five stages in this journey as it’s described in the Safety Journey model. By that I mean that we can feel that we are at the top of our game, that we are fully integrated and are the safest person in the world, but at the moment that we are driving and look at our phone to check a text message or are distracted turning the radio, or any number of things, we’ve slid right back to an awareness level. I think that process is going on continually. I think overall we do improve and that our culture improves and our employees fundamentally understand where we are trying to go. But all of us go back and forth in where we’re at on this journey.

If you’re honest with yourself and you really think about what you do in your life (by you, I mean each one of us), I think you can come to that realization that you go to change a light bulb at home and the step stool is not handy so you stand on a chair, if you’re truly honest and you evaluate what all of us do at any point in time, I think you can really understand that that is a constant battle and it is always in a state of flux. Unfortunately, it takes that one split second that you make that wrong choice; that’s when it happens.

How does a manager influence a company’s safety culture?

Leading by example. We can talk until we are blue in the face, and we can preach and scream and yell or any number of things, but the moment that we say we want everybody to obey the speed limit on the highway, and then we pass someone ignoring that speed limit ourselves, we’ve lost the battle.

Who was most influential in shaping your career and why?

I used to work for Echo Bay Minerals out of McCoy Cove operation [in Lander County], and I used to work for a general manager, his name was John van de Bueken, and he always challenged us to do our best and really believed in safety and he walked the talk, led by example. I remember at one point in time, I was thinking about, he moved on to a different company, and I was thinking about moving on to a different company and the company I was looking at had a really poor safety record and I had mentioned that to him, and I viewed that as a concern and maybe a reason not to go, and he says, “Well, you can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution. If you go in with the attitude that you’re going to try to make it better, then you can actually make a difference and improve the safety record.” That’s always stuck with me.

What made you decide to get into mining?

I had family ties. Way back, my grandfather was a gold miner up in Idaho, and my dad was involved in various aspects so it was something that was an interest to me.

How and when did you become the general manager of SMD?

Ron Guill, the former owner, was trying to slow down a little bit and groom his successors, if you will, so he moved me into general manager in 2010. [Before that], I was one of the projects managers for SMD.

If you could spend a day with one person, who would it be and why?

It would probably be my wife because we don’t get too many days that we stick together. It’s busyness, family, and so on and so forth. Time with family is precious.

What advice would you give a new manager regarding safety?

It would be back to leading by example. You have to show the folks that you’re waking the talk and doing the best you can to live up to the standard that you want.

Newmont safety manager says success is a journey Tim Burns, health and safety manager for Newmont Mining Corp.’s Carlin Surface Mine, has worked for Newmont for more than 22 years. He has experience as a mine engineer and took lessons on safety from a survivor of Idaho’s 1972 Sunshine Mine fire, which led to the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Burns credits his family, particularly his father, for influencing his career choice in mining.

What does it mean to you to win the Nevada Mining Association’s safety manager award?

This award is a little difficult for me just because it’s been given to me, but I feel like there are so many people that are driving me to improve the performance that we’ve had. It takes that village to be successful, not any one individual. …

When we started down the Safety Journey process, it was about improving safety culture and what would it take for us to get there. We had a lot of ideas, but to see those ideas actually start happening — with management team taking ownership of safety and taking responsibility for both the good and the bad, then allowing the hourly folks to get involved to the extent they have — that part is more rewarding than the actual award part of it for me: to see that transition actually taking place through the hard work of the management team and the employees.

You mentioned the Safety Journey program. When did you implement that?

We started the process probably 10 years ago, when we were looking at benchmarking other companies that were successful to see what kind of things they did. One of the big things was just measuring, having a tool to measure that culture. We put a lot of time and work into developing that. That wasn’t me. This was the entire corporate and inside health and safety teams that helped put this together. … We started to roll that out originally to the management teams at a high level with the idea that those management teams would train their folks at the sites and then eventually take that message down to the hourly group. … That’s when the program really started to take hold, and we started to see the improvements building.

How would you describe your company’s safety culture?

For us, it really is a journey; there isn’t an expectation that we are necessarily ever going to get there. Our feeling is that about the time you are getting comfortable, things are going well, that’s when you go on the wrong direction. We track our reportable injuries quite closely, and we’ve seen a steady decline. The other thing is, if we have any injury, it’s really thought of as one too many. … Over the years and through this process, it’s that recognition of, you can let these things happen and do nothing about them until it gets out of control, or you can try to get in front of them and start to put programs in place. …

We are at the point now with our performance it’s quite difficult. The better you get, the harder it is to get better. What we are looking for is perfection, and that’s a pretty tough ruler to measure yourself against. But if you don’t measure it, you don’t tend to improve.

Who was most influential in shaping your career and why?

That’s probably a lot of people, as well. My dad shaped a big part of who I am. When I first made the transition into health and safety, an individual that I worked for — Bob Launhardt — he was the safety engineer when they had the disaster at the Sunshine Mine. When I started to work for him, he had me review all the depositions from that disaster. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was doing that. … Having been in safety a long time now, I think what he was trying to drive in me was the importance of the decisions we make … and what a huge impact it can actually have if you don’t make the right calls. He was the first individual that introduced me to the health and safety side of things. …

It changed [Launhardt’s] life, and his whole method was to try and shape mine without having to go through a disaster like that.

If you could spend a day with one person, who would it be and why?

It would be my dad. He passed on a number of years ago, but like I said, he shaped me into the person I am, and he was quite a man. He didn’t have a degree as a geologist, but he was a draftsman, and that’s how he picked it up, drawing the stope maps, and at some point, they decided that he had what it took. He eventually became the head geologist in Butte until he retired. That was quite an accomplishment.

What made you decide to get into mining?

I grew up in Butte, Montana, which is a mining town not different than Elko. My dad was in the industry, as well as his brother, for a long time. I have an older brother that is also in mining and a younger sister. You might say it was in the family to start with. That’s how we got into it. The college of course in Butte is a mining school, so that is what drove the choices. With what I grew up with, it was an easy choice to decide where to go to school because I already lived there … It goes beyond that. My dad went into it. It was a big employer in Butte. He had family ties, as well: His dad worked at the mine, and uncles who worked in mining, as well.

How does safety in the mining industry compare with safety in other industries?

My career has been entirely in mining, so I don’t have a great exposure to other places, but what I can tell you is that as we’ve progressed on the safety journey here at this site, we have had an impact on the community, as well. We have had employees that have stopped at construction sites and pointed out some of their deficiencies that maybe somebody ought to take a look at. I remember a story, someone said, “What is it with you Elko people?” From that perspective, I think we have a heightened sense around the safety issues, and we do believe that speaking up and watching others is important.

The mining industry used to be thought of as one of the most dangerous activities, and there are definitely hazards and risks, but I think we have done a lot as an industry overall focusing on that. I don’t believe that most people look at it as the most dangerous thing to do. There are an awful lot of jobs out there that are more risky than the mining industry. I’m pretty proud of the fact that the mining industry has turned things around.

What advice do you have for employees of any level just entering the mining profession?

You’ll get out of the mining industry what you’re willing to put into it, and that goes for both the production and the safety side. You need both of those things to happen, but they don’t have to happen right now. Our culture right now is: We put thought into the risks associated with what we’re about to do; and we put plans in place to mitigate those risks; and we stop when we need to stop because something changes. That deliberate approach—although it doesn’t feel right taking the time to check yourself and your co-workers to make sure that you’re making the right moves—is how we produce the improvement that we have. It’s hard to do that all the time, but if you have the right people thinking about that stuff, somebody will be the one to say, “Hey, time out here for a minute. Let’s think about this here for a minute.”

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