There's a reason working in the bush is called "camp."
In early days, when workers left home and went into remote wilderness areas for long-term industrial jobs, camping was required. The accommodations were only a few degrees warmer than out on the work site, there were roofs (often canvas) that kept most of the rain and snow off of sleeping bags, and usually someone else did the cooking. These were about the only features that made these portable villages "home" while the tie-hackers and fishers and track layers of the region eked out a living.
It's only been in the past 10 years or so that modern sensibilities shooed the rats out of the bunkhouse and swept the mess out of the mess hall. Modern work camps are now more like Olympic athletes villages than spartan MASH units.
"The further away from the cities, the nicer the camps need to be to attract workers," said Pam Solly, director of investor relations and corporate responsibility for Thompson Creek Metals. "We have designed, constructed and furnished our permanent operations residence with the intent for it to be run like a three-star lodging facility. We want our employees to enjoy being there."
If they don't like being at Endako Mine or Mount Milligan Mine - the two camp facilities Thompson Creek Metals has in northern B.C., many employees know they have options. Huckleberry Mine near Houston is not far away, there are several coal mines and natural gas outfits in the northeast, Rio Tinto Alcan has a massive construction village for smelter upgrades at Kitimat, NewGold Mines has a camp south of Vanderhoof, and there are even a few forestry camps still in existence especially in spring for the treeplanters and other silviculture workers.
There are currently more industrial jobs than there are employees, so part of the improvements to work camps is related to boosted safety regulations over the years but a lot of it has to do with cutthroat competition for workers.
Tim Bekhuys is the director of environment for NewGold. In his 30 years in the mining industry he said "the expectations have changed a lot" for camps, from the workers who stay there, the unions that represent them, the government agencies that ensure safety, and the mining companies themselves who have learned that a motivated crew is a key variable in making a profit or not.
"It's important that people have a place they want to stay at, so we get the product we are hoping for," Bekhuys said. "It's a pretty exciting time in B.C., a lot of projects are proposed, and we needed to have the labour available to our project. In order to do that, we knew we needed a good camp. When NewGold took over the Blackwater project [south of Vanderhoof and west of Prince George] in 2011 from the junior mining company that owned it beforehand, we ramped it up into probably the largest exploration program in North America. We had probably 400 people on site.
We needed to attract the best people possible. We invested in building a new camp from the ground up."
The newest camps are several portable structure are conjoined into a large common area. One end is a comprehensive kitchen and cafeteria counter, but there are food coolers and snack stations throughout. A wide and clean dining area fills the main area of the structure. Natural light comes in from numerous windows. There is a spacious entranceway where boots and coveralls are taken off. Outside this entrance is a breezeway that leads to various configurations of sleeping quarters, lounges, fitness gyms, libraries with common-use computers, safety and first aid quarters, offices and other amenities.
Some camps in B.C. also have a movie theatre, stores, food franchises and other elements of life back in civilization.
Bekhuys and Solly agree on the thing at the top of the list for industrial workers: safety. Cushy off-hours conditions falls behind this element. Companies can argue over who serves the best muffins and heartiest soups, but no potential employees are listening if they are worried that their families back home might get "the phone call."
Solly said, "We meet all applicable safety codes, sprinkler systems, etc. We have an on-site medical facility with a nurse practitioner, mine rescue team and helicopter pad in the event of a life-threatening evacuation situation."
Looking specifically at Mount Milligan, the construction phase won awards for its safety record. More than five million person-hours were spent without a lost-time injury, and what reportable injuries did occur were minor and few.
Thompson Creek Metals even changed their on-site mine plan to include a residential complex. This required new provincial licenses and municipal approvals (Fort St. James and Mackenzie are both about 90 km from Mount Milligan) in order to accommodate the expressed wishes of potential workers to live at the site. The original plan was to run buses or employees to self drive to and from work each day.
"As you know, winter conditions, logging trucks, etc., make driving on the roads to the mine dangerous, which raised safety concerns with having employees either drive or bus in and out of site each day," said Solly. "The construction of the permanent operations residence enabled us to expand our recruitment efforts outside of Fort St. James and Mackenzie, which has broadened the scope and skill level of recruits/employees."
The presence of the Blackwater exploration camp has improved the health and safety foundations for the whole rural community around their base of operations, said Bekhuys. The main resource road to the site connects to Vanderhoof, and it is a good one used by foresters and ranchers, backcountry recreationists and the smattering of rural residents in the area. Normally a place that remote would be several steps behind in communications technologies, but NewGold's connectivity became their connectivity.
"We installed our own cell tower onsite, so that allows us to communicate with medical services immediately in Prince George and Vanderhoof so there can be quick medical care if someone ever is injured on the job. We have helicopter landing areas, an onsite medic, ambulance services, we do a safety orientation when all staff arrive onsite plus we do daily inspections and we test for alcohol and drug abuse."
Work camps are only beginning to evolve. With thousands of beds scheduled to be temporarily installed in the north to accommodate natural gas projects, plus all the forestry and mining activity ongoing, camp life is only beginning to set up its tent in northern B.C.