Receiving a health and safety award is an achievement for any mineral exploration company, but being a recipient two years in a row is doubly rewarding. BHP Billiton Canada Inc. was presented the Safe Day Everyday Gold Award at a special breakfast during AME BC ’s Mineral Exploration Roundup in 2013 – and again in 2014.

AME BC and the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada jointly present annual awards to encourage leadership in mineral exploration health and safety. BHP Billiton was recognized for having attained 391,549 person hours without a lost-workday incident in 2011, and for achieving 560,440 person hours without a lost workday incident the following year.

The awards have reinforced the safety commitment of BHP Billiton’s potash exploration team in Saskatchewan, says exploration manager John McElroy. As anyone familiar with the province’s weather extremes can attest, working outdoors poses risks and hazards that require special attention. “It means being prepared for heatstroke in the summer and hypothermia in the winter,” McElroy adds.

BHP Billiton holds roughly 14,500 square kilometres of potash exploration ground in Saskatchewan, and is also advancing the Jansen project located approximately 140 kilometres east of Saskatoon. Exploration is focused on finding similar resources to those at Jansen, described by BHP as “the world’s best undeveloped potash resource.”

McElroy says two main types of potash exploration take place on a roughly 50/50 basis: seismic programs that require putting a lot of individuals in the field to lay out sensors for surveys; and deep drilling using rigs of the type used in the oil industry.

“Most of this work is done in winter for ease of access on winter roads and to not interfere with farmers in summer,” McElroy says. “We have to cover large areas – between 6,000 to 7,000 square kilometres for seismic – and drill up to 1,200-metre holes, as the potash basin ranges between 900 and 1,100 metres.”

For seismic programs, McElroy says the main safety risks involve transporting crews and equipment over widespread areas. Drilling poses its own risks, such as handling steel rods and explosives, and moving and setting up oil-industry-type rigs.

McElroy says the overall safety performance has improved steadily since exploration programs began six years ago. “In the past, we had issues such as slips and falls and other injuries, particularly when there was lots of ice and snow. But we’ve put in a lot of effort to eliminate the need to carry heavy equipment and the need to work in deep snow, and that seems to have eliminated most of the risks.”

Because teams work in remote and sparsely populated areas, measures were introduced to reduce driving hazards, such as monitoring speed and a system of journey management to track crews in the field. “If something happens or someone gets stuck in the snow, we know where they are or can find them with GPS,” McElroy says.

McElroy adds that safety programs go beyond addressing specific risks and hazards. “We’re trying to build a safety culture and want people to understand why we place such emphasis on safety. It’s based on the concept of building an interdependent team where we all look out for each other.”

BHP Billiton draws most of its personnel from Alberta and Saskatchewan (most have oil industry experience) and tries to keep teams consistent from year to year. Crews joining for the first time attend startup meetings to reinforce the safety culture. These policies help teams apply lessons learned from previous programs to the following year, in the spirit of having a safe day, every day and every year. BHP Billiton expects to continue exploration while it advances the Jansen project. The company has committed close to US$3.8 billion for Jansen, with two mining shafts expected to be completed in 2016, followed by surface infrastructure in 2017.