For coal handling and preparation plant manager (CHPP) at Glencore’s Mt Owen coal operations, Neil Hassett, receiving the Mine Manager of the Year award at the 2016 Prospect Awards was a humbling experience.
Hassett told Australian Mining he was proud both to have been nominated and to win the award.
“I’m sure there’d be a lot better people out there than me,” he said.
Hassett has worked in the mining industry for 38 years, particularly in the coal processing area. He began as an operator in the late 1970s, working through a number of roles, including mechanical supervisor, processing supervisor and processing superintendent, before starting his current position – CHPP manager – which he has held for the past six years.
The biggest improvement Hassett has observed during his time in the mining industry is its increased focus on safety and the improvement in safety performance. He highlighted that coal processing has also improved, particularly with a greater focus on quality more so than tonnes.
In terms of Mt Owen, located around 25km northwest of Singleton in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, Hassett said one of its major achievements was the increased tonnages that had gone through the plant and the improvement in the quality of the coal product.
However, one of the things he is particularly proud of at the operation is his ability to help its workers succeed.
“In my time, I’ve given people the opportunity to progress their career and this includes people who were operators on the shop floor through to people in various roles in maintenance – both mechanical and electrical,” he said.
“I’ve given them the opportunity to progress and when I’m finished here I’ll be able to walk away and say I’ve given them that opportunity to take and run with.”
When it comes to the operation’s challenges, Hassett asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve got three days have you?”
Among the issues that often beset coal mine managers, Hassett specified the ongoing challenge of operating a plant that is 20 years old. He highlighted wear and tear on the plant as one of the key maintenance issues.
“We run up to 15 million tonnes of feed through the plant each year,” he said.
“And the major challenge is ensuring that the plant is kept up to a standard that will allow us to continue to wash coal to a quality standard and to keep that plant in good working condition,” he said.
But in terms of implementing more automated and innovative solutions to benefit the operations, Hassett said that not much has been done at this stage.
“I wouldn’t say that we’ve tried a lot of it here but we’ve looked at how we can improve the process, for example with better, bigger and more efficient machinery,” he said.
“There are a lot of projects that sit in the background that have been developed like automating the stockpile dozer operation but that’s in its early stages.
“We haven’t seen it here but I would believe in the next couple of years we’ll look to automating some of the processes that are labour intensive like reclaiming coal off our product stockpile with dozers.”
The benefits of the coal mining industry
Hassett emphasised the importance of the coal mining industry, particularly as it provided him employment and a lifestyle.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone into any other industry,” he said.
Hassett added that coal mining also contributes to the local economy and supports local communities. He believes it is a sustainable industry despite the efforts of certain groups calling for the closure of coal mines.
“I still believe there’s quite a good future in it [coal mining]. I think we’ve all got to work hard to improve the quality of the throughput and when we’ve finished mining that it’s rehabbed correctly,” he said.
Things are looking up
Hassett believes there is an overall sense of positivity in the coal mining industry, despite some nervousness about its future due to supply needs, price and viability.
“I think there’s quite a bit of optimism,” he said.
“I think there’s quite a good future in it and people are working hard to make the industry a lot more efficient than what it has been over the years.”
And this positivity is also felt at Mt Owen, which Hassett said was on track to extend the life of the mine to at least 2030.
There is also the potential to expand the two open cut mines in the operations – Ravensworth East and Glendell.
“We also process coal from both those mines and I’d say, without putting dates on them, that they’re looking at the viability of expanding both those operations to increase the life of them,” Hassett added.
The makings of a good manager
One of the key pieces of advice Hassett suggested for aspiring managers was to try to understand your staff.
“Work with your people to try and ensure that when they come to work they’re focused on what they want to do at work,” he said.
Hassett also attributed the success he’s had in his job to some of the people he has worked with. He particularly mentioned his mentor Greg Queenan and Mt Owen operations manager Ashley Mcleod.
“If I reflect back on where I’ve been able to get myself to, I attribute to working to some good people who have supported me in those roles,” he said.
“I’ve got to where I am because I’ve worked with some very good people and I’ve been given opportunities like I like to do to my people – give them the opportunity to better themselves.”
This article also appears in the July edition of Australian Mining.