Mining companies struggle to get workforce vaccinated against COVID
The emergence of the omicron variant is a reminder that the world is not done with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also forced many companies to evaluate their own COVID-19 procedures.
For some the world’s leading international mining companies one of the troublesome struggles is convincing its workforce to get vaccinated against the virus. Surprisingly, for some of the companies, the struggle is hardest in the United States despite the prevalence of available vaccines.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the efforts of Newmont Corporation and Freeport-McMoRan to get their respective workforces vaccinated. Both companies reported high vaccination rates at many of their international operations while struggling lower rates in the United States.
Mining is not covered by the Biden administration order that will require many businesses to ensure their employees are either vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19 by Jan. 4 and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which enforces health-and-safety rules in the mining industry, hasn’t disclosed plans to require workers to be vaccinated.
Newmont Corp., told The Wall Street Journal that vaccination would be compulsory for its U.S. workers after Jan. 31 to protect employees.
So far, Newmont’s U.S. employees have been the least willing to get vaccinated among the countries where the Colorado-based company operates.
“What we are seeing is a higher level of hesitancy in the United States,” Tom Palmer, Newmont’s chief executive, told the Wall Street Journal. “It is something that I am puzzled by.”
Around 47 percent of the staff at Newmont’s two fully owned U.S. mines have been fully vaccinated. That compares with a national rate of more than 70 percent for those age 18 years or above. A lower proportion of Newmont’s mine workers in Suriname have been vaccinated, at 42 percent, but this is because fewer doses are available, the company said.
Almost 100 percent of Newmont’s employees in Peru have received at least one dose, and 94 percent in Mexico have. The level for contractors is lower.
As shots became available in Ghana, the rate of first-dose vaccinations at Newmont’s mines in the West African nation went up from 4 percent to an average of 84 percent across its operations there in less than a month, the company said.
Other big miners including Freeport-McMoRan Inc. and Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. also say vaccination rates at their U.S. sites are lower than their global averages.
U.S. workers in the construction and extractive industries were the most vaccine hesitant of all occupations surveyed by Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh earlier this year. More than 45 percent of respondents in those industries said they were hesitant to get vaccinated, compared with an average of 19 percent across all industries surveyed. The chief reasons cited were a belief that they didn’t need the shots, concerns about side effects and a lack of trust in the vaccine or the government.
Newmont, which has hosted vaccination clinics for workers, said its miners cited similar reasons for being cautious to those in the Carnegie Mellon study.
The company’s vaccination rates also show a sharp difference between different types of worker, with around 95 percent of its corporate office-based workers getting inoculated.
Vaccine hesitancy among miners in the West isn’t entirely limited to the U.S. In Australia, BHP Ltd. recently locked out 50 workers from a coal operation when they couldn’t produce vaccination certificates.
Freeport-McMoRan, based in Phoenix, requires only employees who travel by air or have access to its corporate offices to be vaccinated.
The percentage of the company’s U.S. workers who are vaccinated is in the mid-50s, a spokeswoman said.
By contrast, more than 90 percent of the copper and gold miner’s workforce in South America have been inoculated, while 85 percent of its staff have been in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
“There continue to be challenges in progress in the U.S.,” Richard Adkerson, Freeport’s CEO, said on an earnings call in October.
Freeport said that it is strongly encouraging its staff to get shots. In the U.S., it has facilitated vaccination clinics. In South America, the company is assisting local governments with logistics and facilities for community vaccination programs and providing transportation and time off from work for its own employees to get shots.
In Indonesia, Freeport bought vaccinations through a government-approved program.
Aside from protecting workers, mining companies say their efforts to help communities in developing countries get vaccinated have boosted their image in regions where the industry has faced accusations of environmental damage and human-rights abuses.
Palmer said Newmont anticipates some pushback from employees. Staff who say they have a reason to not get vaccinated, whether medical or religious, can have that reviewed.
Palmer said the decision to require vaccination was in part motivated by the deaths of 26 employees from Covid-19.
“When the efficacy of the vaccines became obvious, the decision [to insist on vaccination] was very straightforward,” he said.