The short winter day is already over and it's dark outside. On one such evening, a car with two engineers is descending into the depths of Oyu Tolgoi's open pit mine. One of them is B.Bat-Erdene who is on the night shift and wants to observe the area while helping me as a guide.
Gigantic trucks loaded with ore pass slowly behind blazing headlights. Shift supervisor B.Bat-Erdene explains, "there is a lighted number at the front and on back of each vehicle – that's the ID number of that vehicle. The lighted number on the sides represents the weight of the load. This vehicle is loaded with 285 tonnes of ore." Komatsu 930E 4SE trucks have 2,700-3,500 horsepower and load capacity of 290 tonnes of cargo, they are enormous - 15 metres wide and 18 metres long, and their fuel tanks alone have a capacity of 4.5 tonnes. The open pit mine operates 28 of these giant trucks.
On the road, we encounter enormous excavators loaded with ore. The Oyu Tolgoi open pit operates two electric and two diesel "Bucyrus" excavators. Electric-powered, the "Bucyrus" excavator is an extremely powerful and highly productive piece of heavy equipment capable of loading up to 130 tonnes of ore at once. The mine also has a "Komatsu WA 1,200" wheel loader, the largest in the world.
Each piece of heavy equipment used for loading and transporting ore at the open pit is giant. The only way to describe them is as the largest or one of the largest in the world.
On the right side of the road, we pass the dam, or "brow," in the language of professional miners, over which pair of black and yellow cables is laid. These cables provide power at 6,000 Volts to run "Bucyrus" excavators and drilling machines.
Our two supervisors have a conversation in the car, transfer the shift and begin their journey back.
At each crossroads, there are blue and yellow lighting poles. "They are charged by solar energy during day and lit at night. They are constantly monitored, and any damage is repaired immediately," says supervisor Bat-Erdene.
A Komatsu truck loaded with ore is moving ahead of us. Safety regulations prohibit overtaking trucks, so we follow until the truck has made a turn. Meanwhile, we have a talk about its "smart" technology. The Komatsu is equipped with smart technology and can weigh its own load and automatically limit the speed. If the load is too heavy, it will not start. Each cabin is equipped with a touch screen connected to a modern allocation system. Once the Komatsu haul truck receives its cargo, the screen immediately displays the unloading location. And after the cargo is unloaded, the driver just presses the "unloaded" button, and it immediately directs him to the loader that's ready for him. There is no longer any need to wait for your turn at the excavator, you arrive exactly as another vehicle completes loading ore and rolls out.
Modern allocation systems for heavy haul trucks carefully take into consideration every detail – which vehicle is traveling at what speed, travel time, and to which excavator it goes after unloading. All this allows open pit operations to continue efficiently, without interruptions and delays.
B.Bat-Erdene promises to show me the operation of this allocation system on his computer. Suddenly, we pass a cup-sized rock which looks like it has fallen from the previous truck and B.Bat-Erdene immediately takes his shortwave radio and gives a command for it to be cleared immediately. A pointed rock, even if it is tiny, presents the possibility of a dangerous puncture for a 200 tonne vehicle with 300 tonnes of load, a combined mass of 500 tonnes. Smooth rocks are less dangerous, but with each burst tire costing MNT80 million to replace, it risks considerable financial damage. So everyone looks very carefully for stones on the road, and if there are any, they report them immediately.
When we arrive at the work area of the open pit, some 50 people from the night shift are already there. The meeting begins with a safety share and ends with the shift supervisor assigning work. The building has one wall dedicated solely to important information: locations of heavy equipment, such as trucks and excavators, are recorded in yellow, green, red, blue and black colours. Yellow represents delay, green means in use, red signifies damaged, blue is ready to use and black stands for loaded. A panel shows that the night shift task is to mine 135 thousand tonnes of rock mass, this is the "target" for the night. Such plans are issued both for day and night shifts, and tie into bi-weekly and monthly plans. The night shift starts at 18.30 and ends at 06.15, completing the last shipment, with two 30 minute breaks.
Bat-Erdene began working at Oyu Tolgoi in 2005. He graduated from the Institute of Commerce and Industry as a business major, and then the University of Science and Technology as Mining operations engineer. After graduating, he worked in a mining industry consulting firm. When he first came here, Oyu Tolgoi was just a small hill known to locals on the empty steppe. At the time, he worked as a geo-technician in an exploration unit headed by renowned geologist and Honored industrial worker D.Garamjav who discovered the Oyu Tolgoi deposit. Since March 2011, he has worked as a medium-term planning engineer in the open pit planning department. He learned to use new advanced software which had never been deployed in Mongolia before from experienced international engineers, and used it to develop a general plan for mining operations. In simple terms, it's a 3D map which is used for advance planning of mining operations. However, since 2012, he has been turning plans on the computer into real work. He is the first Mongolian shift supervisor at the open pit, a position of great responsibility and requiring strong management skills, which was usually held by foreign specialists.
As we talk, I hear a few people inquiring about work on his radio and saying, "Can you hear me, mining master?" referring to Bat-Erdene. His official title at Oyu Tolgoi's open pit is shift supervisor, but the miners still use the old title 'Mining Master.' Historically, at every mine in Mongolia, people who supervise mining operations are known as mining or mountain masters. But, this may not be understood by everyone! He tells me a funny story, something that happened to his friend. People who have worked with him, introduced the man as a mountain master, and one day someone understood that to mean a master mountaineer and asked, "How long have you been climbing mountains?"
Talking about work again, Bat-Erdene speaks of the demands of working the night-shift, "Before I start the shift I always ask the employees 'Have you had a good rest? Is there anyone who hasn't slept well or has any problems?" If someone has family problems, had bad sleep or is emotionally distressed, we shouldn't force him to work. If he goes to work in such a state, he is likely to have a negative impact on safety. Bad safety poses risks to human lives, and it leads to injuries and damage for the equipment".
"Oyu Tolgoi is a company which puts people first. Safety is the most important priority. However, as a business organization, after ensuring safety we must make profit. No loss of human life or injuries can be permitted just to make profits. Our company motto is everyone should return home as safe and sound as he came to work in the morning," he adds.
There are many cases when workers speak up, "I wasn't able to sleep well during the day, I am sleepy now," and his work is stopped immediately. He is given time to rest and have some coffee before being allowed to come back to work.
"I liken a mining operation to a chain which links everybody. For example, if a loaded truck which weighs 500 tonnes breaks down on the road ascending from the mine, it will close the road for all traffic. The crusher will stop without ore, and the concentrator will grind to a halt. So if one link breaks, everyone – the whole chain - stops," he explains.
Bat-Erdene manages a team comprised of only men. The guiding principle is very simple - It would be difficult to adapt work to everybody's thinking and behavior. So instead, every employee should follow the company rules, understand his responsibilities and work safely and ethically.
A mining engineer is responsible to work efficiently in accordance with the mining plan, leading people by exercising due oversight at every step and resolving problems as they arise – all while ensuring safety.
While ensuring safety is responsibility of everyone, as a senior officer he is also responsible for providing conditions for safe work of his team. He must regularly observe and monitor work and make changes as needed. On the road to the mine, he keeps a close eye on roadsigns, checking if they have fallen or been bent by the wind in the wrong direction.
I watch the operation of the allocation system on his computer - all the excavators and heavy trucks, what vehicle, registration number, how many tonnes of cargo, current speed, and minutes of arrival at the excavator after unloading cargo - all information in one place. Even for the excavators, information like which side they are being loaded from and loading completion times are all indicated. Smartphones are all the rage today, but here we have a smart solution for mining.
B. Bat-Erdene says, "Previously, a dozer driver meant to people someone who is always covered with grease. But today, we have progressed to a point where drivers are operators. The Komatsu trucks are huge machines, but they ride softly and are as easy to drive as passenger cars. Cabins are comfortable and insulated from noise, air conditioned, and dust free. If something does break down, the repair team can be summoned over radio. Our operators are very proud of their profession. And I love it too".
In between this discussion on work, he also talks about his family, "My wife O.Mungunchimeg is a lawyer by profession, but now she runs a beauty salon. My oldest daughter is studying Industrial Management at University of Science and Technology, and our youngest daughter is a 4th year secondary school student. "
Mining operations involve efforts of many people, cost a lot of money and must ensure safety at every step. This can be seen from night shift work of the Open Pit mine. My purpose today was to give our readers a glimpse into the night shift at the mine. Here, with safety foremost on their mind, miners keep the mine in operation with maximum efficiency, working to create new wealth for Mongolia everyday.