30/01/2008 - 22:00

Argyle leads way in fly-in, fly-out

30/01/2008 - 22:00

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‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ might be a cliché, but the history of Western Australia’s Argyle mine in the Kimberley reflects something of a deeper truth in that saying.

Argyle leads way in fly-in, fly-out

 ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ might be a cliché, but the history of Western Australia’s Argyle mine in the Kimberley reflects something of a deeper truth in that saying.

In a minerals sector not particularly recognised for female achievements, the Rio Tinto Ltd-owned Argyle mine has stood out throughout the three decades since discovery.

Exploration geologist Maureen Muggeridge led the team that found the deposit in 1979, which, albeit coincidently, started a chain of events that led to the operation’s ongoing approach to employment.

Argyle became the first WA mine site to actively seek out women for its workforce, believing there would be operational benefits.

Included among its ranks was Joanne Farrell, now the global head of Rio Tinto Iron Ore’s human resources, health, safety and environment operations.

Furthermore, the mine’s current general manager of production is Maryanne Kelly, a past WA Business News 40under40 Award winner.

Ms Muggeridge believes the persistence and quality work of her team resulted in the discovery that became Argyle, recalling the opportunity was nearly lost when her then employer, CRA, tried to end the operation.

Convincing management that they would not want to leave a big diamond mine undiscovered, they agreed to go ahead, but only with one helicopter.

By chance, that accelerated the discovery because, with limited resources, they chose the smaller of two areas remaining on their program.

Argyle turned out to be in that area.

Ms Muggeridge said she also got her way when it came to the name, preferring Argyle to the management choice of Lissadell, the name of the cattle station it was found on.

When Ms Farrell arrived at the mine in 1987, it was fledging operation run by David Karpin, which had already taken a radical approach to development in a bid to change traditional work practices by seeking employees without mining experience – so-called cleanskins – following successful experimentation in outback NSW.

“We thought it would provide us with many more options, and it did,” Ms Farrell said.

“It allowed us to create a different cultural blueprint, less blokey.”

The advantage of this lay in the safety statistics, which were showing that a cultural shift could create big improvements.

“Women were shown to be kinder on equipment,” Ms Farrell told WA Business News.

Ms Farrell’s job was initially to run training to improve the capability of the mine staff’s leadership, in order for the project to become self-sustaining.

The management at Argyle had established the first significant fly-in, fly-out mining operation in WA as part of its bid to create a workforce that was culturally different from most other mines.

“With fly-in, fly-out we recognised we were creating a residential environment so we wanted as much normalisation of the population to allow us to expect normal behaviour,” Ms Farrell said.

Fly-in, fly-out appealed to women because they could work in the Kimberley without their partner needing to give up their job. Another appeal was the camp, luxurious by the standards of the day, which was dubbed Club Argyle.

Among those credited as drivers of that change were current FMG executive director Graeme Rowley.

Argyle production chief Maryanne Kelly said the policies of the past were not currently mandated, they were subconsciously followed.

“There’s a great deal of awareness,” Ms Kelly said.

She said the boom had ensured that capability of staff remained at the forefront of the mine’s focus.

And, while fly-in, fly-out was seen as offering flexibility 20 years ago, the mine’s focus was now on a residential workforce based at Kununurra, with 60 per cent of the mine’s workers living locally and 26 per cent of indigenous origin.

Ms Kelly’s experience includes managing Rio Tinto’s Pannawonica operations where she was responsible not just for the mine, but the town as well.

At that site, in order to attract staff and retain workers, management sought to employ existing workers’ partners, a move that added substantially to the female workforce on site.

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