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Cutting-edge mining in Sweden, where automation is the solution, not a threat

An ILO News team went deep underground into one of the world’s most advanced mines to find out how technology has affected jobs, safety and the integration of women.

Feature | 19 August 2019
GARPENBERG, Sweden (ILO News) - As the world of work undergoes transformative change of unprecedented proportions, barely a day goes by without headlines asking if robots will steal our jobs. At a highly automated mine in Sweden, the answer is a resolute ‘no’.

Managers and union leaders at the Boliden mine in Garpenberg, some 200 km northwest of Stockholm, agree that technology has prevented the mine from closing down and are confident it will continue to save jobs.

The mine clearly supports the argument that, properly managed, technology can help create new, decent jobs. Automation has helped promote the integration of women, reduce risk and raise productivity.

Carl Johan, remotely operates vehicles with the help of joysticks and monitor screens.
Here, the ‘miners of the future’ work about one kilometre underground, but in air-conditioned offices, insulated from the hot and humid galleries where the actual drilling for zinc and silver takes place. They tele-operate the heavy machinery from the comfort of their armchairs, with the help of joysticks and monitor screens.

“Adopting the new technology is a way for us to keep our jobs, and so to survive,” says Ulf Gustafsson,” an IG Metall trade union representative at the mine.

Dalarna county, where Garpenberg is situated, had been at the heart of Sweden’s mining industry for centuries, but plummeting mineral prices and international competition in the 1990s led to the closure of most of the mines in the region.

The Boliden mine was among those slated to close, but a new ore deposit was discovered. In 2011, Boliden decided to not only maintain but expand operations by focusing on automation.

Jenny Gotthardsson, the mine’s Managing Director, is convinced that productivity is critical to the continued success of the mine. “Competition in the mining sector is fierce. In a country like Sweden, with its higher wage bill, we can only remain competitive if we optimize productivity. Because we are competitive, we can preserve and even create jobs,” she says.

She also underscores the importance of social dialogue and cites the fact that the employees themselves test the new technologies until they are operational.

"Because we are competitive, we can preserve and even create jobs." Jenny Gotthardsson in the control room of the Boliden mine.
Of the 440 people working at the Garpenberg site, 18 per cent are women. “We hope to increase that number thanks to the mine’s automation, so as to better reflect the composition of Swedish society,” says Gotthardsson.

In the traditionally male world of mining, Gotthardsson says she feels at ease in her job. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m a man or woman, I concentrate on my mission, which is to develop and manage the mine, including safety and implementation of automation.”

One of the miners – they now tend to be called operators – Knut Lund, from Norway, recalls the risks he faced when he started working in this mine in 1990. Rockslides were the greatest danger, and many of his colleagues were injured, some of them seriously. More than ever, safety is now a priority for everyone. A dummy located near the miners’ changing rooms indicates all the points of the human body that have been hurt in accidents at the Garpenberg site – one way of reminding everyone of the importance of strict compliance with safety procedures.

Knut Lund, operator at the Boliden mine with the dummy that indicates all the points of the human body that have been hurt in accidents at the Garpenberg site.
Cameras make it possible to monitor even the remotest parts of the mine and anyone inside the mine must carry a tracker that pinpoints their exact location.

“Thanks to the mine’s automation, we work in safer conditions,” says Gustafsson.

Sweden was among the first countries to ratify the ILO Safety and Health in Mining Convention, 1995 (No 176). Under the Convention, governments must create a framework for a safe mining environment and employers must ensure mine safety, while workers have the right to participate in workplace safety and to refuse unsafe work.