Not only is Mongolia a country steeped in history and cultural diversity, but it is also a land of extreme climates and terrain which create significant challenges to undertaking safe exploration. AngloGold Ashanti established an office and began exploration in Mongolia in May 2003 and currently has 23 employees (including contractors) based in that country.
The company has committed to a set of best practice safety initiatives, adapted to Mongolian conditions; these are captured in a comprehensive bilingual Standard Operating Procedures document. To ensure that exploration is undertaken safely in local conditions (see
box below), the company has brought in experts to educate staff on such diverse topics as cold weather survival and snow driving, map-reading and navigation, and search and rescue techniques. Appropriate clothing, equipment and vehicles are essential to efficient and safe working procedures in this environment.
Says Mike Hawkins, exploration manager, "The ability to explore safely can be complicated by the remote location of many projects and the lack of local and regional infrastructure. This lack of infrastructure forces a greater reliance on internal company resources to ensure a safer work environment. Evacuation procedures, regimented scheduled communication and training have been implemented to counter the lack of infrastructure. To complement this, the company liaises with an international medical provider for emergency medical advice and med-vac facilities.
"At least 15 distinct ethnic groups co-exist in Mongolia, many of whom speak their own dialect and have their own cultural sensitivities and customs. An awareness of these is critical to working harmoniously in the Mongolian countryside. As part of the rigorous induction process, all employees and contractors are familiarised with these issues and the need to respect this cultural diversity, and employees are encouraged to learn both Mongolian and English. These skills become particularly useful in dealing with emergency situations apart from day-to-day exploration activities."
In April, May and June, a series of navigational, survival and search and rescue exercises were conducted using local and expatriate exploration personnel in co-ordination with local and central government authorities. The exercises were overseen by independent search and rescue consultants. Included among the exercises were overnight survival practicals, during which staff were required to build shelters such as snow caves and to co-operatively pool their resources to enable them to survive the night in temperatures that fell below -10ºC. Search and rescue exercises were also conducted on AngloGold Ashanti exploration tenements in a variety of terrains, ranging from forested, mountainous areas with late-season snow cover, to the arid Gobi desert. Each of the terrains offered different challenges to the participants, and valuable lessons were learnt about how terrain can influence the requisite search area and methodology. Additionally, the long hours put into the programmes showed how fatigue can adversely influence decision-making. The search and rescue exercises also enabled participants to put into practice some of the specialist driving and vehicle recovery techniques that they had been taught, as the challenging terrains necessitated numerous real vehicle recovery actions.
A commitment by all staff to ongoing training, and adoption of safe work practices specifically tailored to local conditions, enabled the Mongolian team to successfully complete the field season without recording a single lost time injury.
Conditions in Mongolia
Terrain in Mongolia varies from rugged mountain ranges to harsh desert. The high Altai, which dominates the western reaches of the country, has mountain ranges in excess of 4,000 metres in height, where flash floods and snow are common. In contrast the harsh Gobi desert in the south is deeply incised with numerous steep gorges and mountain ranges, making driving difficult and time-consuming. Winter temperatures across the entire country can fall below -40ºC.