25/03/2009 - 22:00

From the accommodation units to the bar and kitchen, it’s all gold at Higginsville

25/03/2009 - 22:00

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HOW do a journalist and a photographer from Perth end up chatting about fast cars and a balanced diet with a leading racing driver in the state's remote outback? The answer to that lies in the modern mine site and just how far companies are prepared to go

HOW do a journalist and a photographer from Perth end up chatting about fast cars and a balanced diet with a leading racing driver in the state's remote outback?

The answer to that lies in the modern mine site and just how far companies are prepared to go to make their workplaces attractive and their workforces efficient.

WA Business News recently had the opportunity to visit the Higginsville gold mine, operated by Avoca Resources close to Kambalda, to see first hand how things are really done in an industry that drives Australia's economy.

In some ways, Higginsville is a contrast to other developments of the recent, now spluttering boom.

Opened just eight months ago it was constructed and manned at the most expensive period of the boom, at a time when gold was a poor cousin to nickel and iron ore, which were soaking up the state's development resources.

That had a big impact out at Higginsville, and not just in the multi-million dollar cost of the plant. Accommodation units, for instance, suddenly became a lot more expensive, stretching the budget and limiting the standard of living units.

"The big guys push everything up," Avoca operations manager Tony James said. "That makes a big difference."

"If they have pools, everyone thinks they need a pool, even though 10 per cent of people use them."

Fortunately, Mr James said competition for people was not as simple as going dollar for dollar against Rio Tinto or BHP Billiton.

Gold mining, he says, attracts certain people. In addition, they also like to work with managers they've worked with before.

There is also the cachet of working at a new operation. Higginsville, an intermittent gold mining site for than 100 years, was the first new gold mine in Western Australia since around 2001. The story of how it was reopened on rehabilitated land after a leading geologist spent two months living in the core farm analysing years of drilling samples is extraordinary.

Similarly, the bullishness of management with regard to the company's positioning is infectious.

Since Avoca opened the underground mine at Higginsville, of course, things have changed considerably for the gold sector.

Suddenly, the price has shot up to historic highs while other commodities have sunk.

A 24-hour visit to the mine site shows no sign that Avoca or any of its contractors - Australian Contract Mining for the mining and exploration, and Morris Corporation for the catering and camp management - have let up on all the key tasks to keep their workers safe, happy and content, despite the changes in the mining sector.

With the gold price high, an efficient workforce remains a must, if for no other reason than to extract every ounce possible during this buoyant window.

A casual tour around the workings of the mine site and camp underline that. It's a sparse operation with barely a handful of workers visible at any of the above ground operations.

The accommodation is clean, well cared for and run efficiently. Complete with check-in, it's not unlike any well-run regional motel you'd care to remember visiting - albeit without a pool.

The bar is busy, especially on shift change day as the night workers celebrate their 24-hour weekend in preparation for a week on day shift.

Down in the mess area the mixture of people belies some of the myths of mining. While there are plenty of youngish men and women, there are also a high proportion of middle-aged workers and several who are clearly in the twilight of their careers.

Many are fly-in, fly-out workers but some drive to work from towns like Kambalda, Kalgoorlie and even Ravensthorpe. Some are couples doing a few years together in the mining game, while others are in it for life.

One thing they do have in common, though, is diet, according to Morris Corporation's business development manager Perry Vitale.

Traditionally, camp messes indulge the laziest attitude to food, providing mountains of the wrong stuff and always with chips. It's the kind of regular eating that is rarely matched by the rest of the community.

Mr Vitale reckons few mining workers would eat as well as often at home.

But there is also a cost, in terms of health, and mining companies are trying to address that.

Mr Vitale said Morris, a Queensland group with a relatively small presence in WA, is trying to combat that on behalf of mine management. The catering side - led by chefs from South-East Asia - has introduced healthy eating guides, and they've brought in Holden team V8 Supercar racing driver Jason Richards as an ambassador of healthy eating.

As switched on to the commercial side of his career as any sportsman could be, Mr Richards understands that few people are going to bring as much attention to healthy consumption at a mine site than a race driver who competes at Bathurst.

Even the guys with Ford logos on their camp doors will listen to that.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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