Allison Hagerman holds her breath sometimes in blasting class when the newer students load their own holes, but she knows these University of Arizona students are well-trained and take safety seriously, because that is what they are being taught. Not to mention, they are certified in mine safety by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA.
|Women are persevering; change is happening.
Mining is still seen as a quintessential male domain in many respects. But women the world over toil as miners, and more and more female mining and geological engineers are entering the industry, putting their mark on technological, environmental, corporate and social advancements.
The University of Arizona is dedicated to helping fill the much-needed pipeline of mining and geological engineers. In part, that means making sure women continue to take their place in an industry expected to need 128,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade.
"When I was growing up, I heard more about what careers women couldn’t have than what careers they could have," said UA Distinguished Professor Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources and head of the mining and geological engineering department. "Today it is a different world. Women can access any career they want. Now the challenge is what you can do, not who you are."
Young women just entering the profession feel they have a world of opportunity awaiting them, and those well into their careers and nearing retirement say they have had the ride of a lifetime.
They are the new face of mining. And these are their stories.
"We learn safety here, and we take it with us," said Hagerman, treasurer of the student chapter of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration.
For two weeks every year, all UA mining and geological engineering students undergo intensive training, which emphasizes avoidance of hazards, emergency medical procedures and first aid, escape and emergency evacuations, fire warning and firefighting procedures, health and safety.
"Ros tells us that safety is No. 1 in the industry, and it is going to be No. 1 here too," said Hagerman.
John R. M. "Ros" Hill is faculty director of the student-run San Xavier Mining Laboratory and professor of practice in the UA department of mining and geological engineering.
Hagerman, who is among about 15 women now enrolled in the mining and geological engineering program, has taken the focus on safety a step further in captaining the UA women’s mine rescue team, formed a few years ago.
The six-woman team -- captain, co-captain, gas, map, fresh air, and medic -- works and practices, rotating roles, at the UA San Xavier underground mine. Then they prove their mettle in international competitions. Geared up with equipment, including oxygen tanks and full face masks, weighing up to 45 pounds, they look like astronauts headed into space.
An underground mine rescue team is tasked with getting injured fellow workers to the surface where paramedics can take over. Carrying a stretcher loaded with rescue equipment and a 6-foot 4, 250-pound victim out of tight smoke-filled spaces is challenging. Physical strength, however, is not the hardest part of mine rescue for the UA team.
"It is tough; they always pick the biggest man for the mock trials. But communication is the most difficult part of mine rescue," said Hagerman. And that is where the small, close-knit band of all women excels.
Next for Hagerman, who graduates in May 2013, is Freeport ’s graduate development program, where she will be moving from one site to another and switching roles every few months for two years, training intensively in mine planning, ore control, and blasting. She said she is among the 100 percent of her graduating class to walk into well-paying, stable jobs.
She knows there may be some razzing her first few weeks on the job, but it is easier now, and different, she says.
"There are so many more women in mining management positions," Hagerman said. "The bigger issue is age, not gender. In mining, there seem to be the very young and the very old."
Recent reports from the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration bear that out. Because of the number of retirees and the rising demand for skilled mining workers, the society reported in 2012 that for a period of time the United States will have a workforce made up of very young and very senior workers, creating a gap in skill and knowledge.
"It’s important to always remember that the older folks are there to teach you," said Hagerman. "I learn something new every day, and that is likely to be the case every day of my career."