Looking ahead

IOC VP addresses production, dust issues

Bonnie Learning bonnie.learning@tc.tc
Published on November 24, 2015


©Aurora file photo

Falling iron ore prices and layoffs in the mining sector has cast a shadow of economic uncertainty over Labrador West over the last year.

IOC is caught up in that uncertainty, with some sectors of the mining operation cut, including production numbers at the pellet plant.

Mike Wickersham, vice president of northern operations for IOC, says pellet plant production has been reduced to 50 per cent due mainly due to a weak market for pellets.

“The reason we shut down three (of six) machines in the pellet plant is there’s been significant weakening in the price for our pellets that we get from our customers, what we call the ‘margin per pellets’,” he said.

Wickersham said this trend has been driven by the flooding of cheap steel into North American and European markets, primarily from China.

“What’s happening is, folks who are making steel for a living in the areas closest to us are really being driven to the point of extinction by this cheap steel that’s been coming from China and they’re really pressuring everyone that’s supplies to them to lower their price for inputs and in our case, it’s the price of pellets.”

Wickersham said the partial production shut down is unrelated to a fire on the pellet plant loading dock that happened on Sept. 20, and although he says he still hasn’t heard the final analysis as to whether the fire suppression system was fully functional at the time of the blaze, he believes it was not fully operational.

“That certainly could have helped to knock down the fire,” he said. “We’ve really got to raise our game for protecting our assets and providing the right care and custody for our equipment that provides our livelihoods in this town.”

Wickersham said the employees who worked at the pellet plant have been redeployed elsewhere at IOC.

“Because the market is volatile, there is the chance the pellet prices could recover and we wanted to be able to take advantage of that quickly, if and when the market improves,” Wickersham explained.

“So we’ve got folks here on site who have the skills who are still ready to do that but they’ve been redeployed elsewhere in the business, and that’s the other reason we didn’t take a layoff this time.”

He noted IOC undertook a layoff on June 14, which affected about 100 employees. “Out of a core group of about 1,300, that’s pretty significant,” he said. “We certainly hope to avoid layoffs in the future, but if (iron ore) prices continue to decline, some of those choices may be taken beyond my control and we may have to make some different decisions.”

Some of those layoffs included 29 positions in what Wickersham describes as

‘labour and pay-class’ — mainly janitorial and housekeeping duties.

He said while employees as operator-maintainers have taken over those duties since that layoff — and they earn higher wages due to their positions — there are actually cost savings.

“The cost savings actually came in the realization we had some duplication of work,” he said.  “What we’re finding is, when people start to step up and take care of custody of their business and stop leaving messes for others, we needed about half the people cleaning up spills and responding to housekeeping.”

Dust level

Another issue of concern in Labrador West is the amount of silica dust being generated by the mines.

Wickersham said for IOC, this issue will continue to be a significant challenge.

“We have a lot of silica in our ore body and this ore body is going to provide a resource for mining companies — when the prices are right — for the next 50 to 100 years, so that problem will persist,” he said.

Wickersham said IOC is addressing the problem by currently repairing and upgrading dust removal systems, using water sprays and having employees use personal respiratory systems for their own protection.

He added IOC has committed to taking care of their obligations in caring for employees that have been affected by silicosis as a result of the silica dust, noting IOC is doing its due diligence in several workers compensation cases.

“Any company does (due diligence) when there is a claim or allegation made,” he said. “We just want to make sure they’re verifiable and we’re providing compensation to the folks who really deserve it; that’s a routine thing.”


The Aurora asked Wickersham about the protocol for lowering of the flags outside it’s building when a former or active IOC employee passes away.

Wickersham explained earlier this fall, the decision was made to not lower the flag every time someone died, noting there was a lot of ‘confusion.’

“The flags were going up and down and there really wasn’t any communication or awareness of why that was happening,” he said. “I think folks in a small area understood why they were making the request to raise or lower the flags, but there was never really any communication to let people know.”

The second reason the decision was made was to align itself with national protocol.

“There is a protocol when national flags should be raised or lowered or flown differently. We weren’t respecting that standard,” he said. “Those only happen for national days of mourning, specific national holidays, and we just wanted to standardize the use of flags as a symbol of what most other businesses would do.”

The flag issue hit a nerve with the Steelworkers Union, with president Ron Thomas stating in a previous article in The Aurora that the relationship between IOC and the union was at an ‘all time low.’

Wickersham sees it differently.

“My focus is on improving the relationship between the company and the employees,” he said. “If we don’t have engaged employees who feel as if they have a voice in the business, who feel like they know how to contribute to its success, and how to keep the business healthy enough to preserve this small community, then we’re in real trouble in this operation.

“So my focus is how do you get folks on the floor engaged so that they’re solving problems, working on safety, working on production, working to eliminate costs. And if we get 1,200 people to do that, then IOC will continue to improve and we’ll have a chance in a challenging marketplace.”