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ABC News
ABC News
By Mark Foreman

Diversification the key as Pilbara towns prepare for the age of mining automation and possible population impacts

Automation on mine sites has been touted as a way to improve safety, efficiency and productivity but there are concerns the growth of autonomous mining will negatively impact workers and towns that rely on the industry.

Major miners have been eager to adopt autonomous technology in the Pilbara region, in Western Australia's north-west.

From March 2023 Roy Hill plans to expand its autonomous haulage system, converting haul trucks to driverless operations, to become the world's largest single automated mine site.

Shire of East Pilbara President Anthony Middleton said his council understood the need for automation, but there were concerns about what it would mean for smaller towns.

"It will affect them immensely," he said.

"We always want to see a more permanent residential community.

"That is what contributes to the social fabric, the vibrancy and livability of regional locations."

The town of Newman, which is heavily reliant on surrounding mines, recorded a small drop in population between the 2016 census and the 2021 survey, of around 300 people.

While there are many factors at play, some locals are concerned that automation could further impact population numbers. 

Greg Busson is the joint secretary of the Western Mining Workers Alliance, which advocates for mine workers in the Pilbara.

"Governments have invested billions of dollars into these communities to make them habitable and now we're moving the jobs away," he said.

"What jobs are there for the kids of the future in these communities?

"We've been contacting companies and getting undertakings for the workers regarding their future employment, looking for alternate jobs and tasks within the company for these people."

Mr Busson said retraining workers was important.

"The opportunity to retrain these people so they can take up some of these other jobs and remain in the community doing something different," he said.

"As they approve some of these automation hubs, we should be looking at placing them in the communities where these people come from so that there are jobs for the future."

Automation crucial, researcher says

Dr Fiona Haslam-McKenzie is a Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia and has spent much of her academic life analysing the socio-economic effects of mines on regional towns.

She said while automation could affect mining towns, it was crucial for the industry to capitalise on Western Australia's mining boom.

"The scale of mining in Australia has escalated exponentially over the last 25 years," she said.

"We need automation because if we're going to continue the scale and the pace of change, then something has to give.

"And clearly, technology provides many of the solutions."

WA's peak resources sector representative body, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME), said there would always be a need for people in mining. 

"Even where we see increasing use of automation, there are still really important jobs filled by people that support that process," a spokesman said.

"There are definitely new lines of work being created in the fields of programming automated technology, analysing the data that is produced by its operation and making key business decisions on that.

"The specific areas in which we are seeing more automation are those where it's difficult to source local people to do jobs and where safety is enhanced by moving people from that space or task – examples being truck or train drivers."

The spokesman said CME member companies had a strong focus on attracting and retaining local workforces wherever they could.

"There are some significant challenges associated with that, including severe shortages in housing and other services like childcare in regional areas, which are exacerbating current tightness in the labour market," the statement said.

"This makes growing residential workforces more difficult but our member companies continue to work with communities and other key stakeholders to find solutions to these issues and make living regionally more feasible and attractive for workers."

Reducing the effects

Mr Middleton said in the Shire of East Pilbara, adapting to the changes and diversifying skill sets to encourage growth in the region was key.

"We're hoping from a council point of view that companies strongly support these people that are required for automation that are living and residing in Newman as opposed to FIFO," he said.

"It's something that we, and all local governments across the Pilbara that have mining, will have to work through."

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