Mining health and safety manager champions new mental health program

Builds on Workplace Safety North workplace mental health training

Dennis Sobey

Dennis Sobey, Senior Ontario Health and Safety Manager at Agnico Eagle, shares his experience and methods with the hope of inspiring other companies to pursue a strong and sustainable mental health program.

In 2019, Dennis Sobey, Senior Ontario Health and Safety Manager at Agnico Eagle, began putting a mental health program in place for mine workers at the Detour Lake Mine near Cochrane, Ontario. The initiative has since expanded to the company’s Macassa Mine in Kirkland Lake, and its Timmins offices.

Sobey shares his experience and methods with the hope of inspiring other mining companies and industries to pursue a wholesome, sustainable mental health program.

“I often speak about mental health with internal and external groups,” says Sobey. “I spoke of our programs at the CIM [Canadian Institute of Mining] conference in Vancouver in May. I promote it everywhere I go. It goes naturally with part of our ‘fit for duty’ and responsibility and much more.

“It’s easy to check boxes and only deal with a situation when it arises, but let’s be clear, that is a reaction. If we continue to approach mental health issues in that way, we will have lots of lagging indicators and outcomes that will be negative that we could have addressed earlier and had a better result. We need to look after our people.”

Taking care of safety from the neck up

When asked about why he is so passionate about mental health in the workplace, Sobey explained he has worked in the mining industry for more than 35 years. He says mine workers often deal with depression, isolation, and substance use.

Since the mid-80s, Sobey watched as people self-medicated in every mine he worked at in the United States, Mexico, South Africa, and across the provinces and territories in Canada. Many people didn’t get the help and treatment they needed and died as a result.

“I’ve watched this over and over, through the years—we’ve lost a lot of good people from positions, lost a lot of good people from the industry, and a lot of families have lost their dad or their mom or their child or their nephew or niece, just because they weren’t provided with what they needed to be successful. So, I’ve been passionate about it for a long time. We need to fix the industry and other industries.

“We need to ensure we’re doing everything to support the mental health of our people. We’re good at putting in procedures and PPE [personal protective equipment] and such, to make sure that people are physically safe doing a job. It’s far past the time we need to ensure that we’re taking care of health and safety from the neck up.”

Mental health support a fundamental right

“Sometimes people get bogged down in life, sometimes they’re overwhelmed, and sometimes they need some help,” says Sobey. “I think it’s a fundamental right of our workforce to expect that support and help. I’ll continue to drive change in the initiatives to make it stay on the front burner.”

Sobey believes a key factor in getting their mental health program off the ground was the partnership with Workplace Safety North (WSN).

“It all started from the relationship we built with Workplace Safety North,” says Sobey, “and being that first company to put a training partnership in place under the WSN platform for mental health awareness was huge in getting us to where we are today.”

The company continues to work hand in hand with WSN to help drive change, reduce stigma, and promote mental wellness. Covid added to the stresses of the world and for over two years it has been non-stop.

“Thirty-seven out of every 100 short-term disability claims we have encountered in the last two years have been related to mental health. This is not only an issue within our company or industry but in the world in general.”

A multi-faceted approach to mental health

Detour Lake Mine employs about 2,200 workers and Macassa Mine employs about 1,000 workers. Detour Gold was bought by Kirkland Lake Gold in 2020 and recently merged with Agnico Eagle. Sobey says the corporate team has expressed a great level of support for the company’s multi-faceted approach to mental health, which includes the following components.

  1. Employee-driven program has members of the workforce provide a support group for people who are struggling. They also supply a weekly safe space meeting and consistent messages and interactions to promote mindfulness and help ensure everyone knows they are not alone.
  2. WSN Mental health awareness training is used and added to the company’s new worker orientation program. WSN also trained the company’s health and safety trainer to be able to facilitate the awareness program across company sites. The WSN program consists of short toolbox talks from five to fifteen minutes on mental health and awareness, longer sessions for educational purposes – often done in safety meetings, interactions with workers to have quick chats either one-on-one or in groups. It also has specific sessions for supervisors and leaders where they learn about signs, approaches, how to interact, what to do and in general, how to identify and respond to a person’s crisis before it becomes a situation.
  3. Mental health first aid training from the Canadian Mental Health Association, including facilitator training for their consultant.
  4. Employ a mental health and addictions consultant as part of the team to focus on building mental health programs and training. The consultant often makes use of supports provided by the Employee and Family Assistance Program. They’re also available for one-on-one sessions with employees on site to ensure they had a safe place to have a conversation and develop a success plan. When they meet with workers at the camps, the meeting location is not in the public eye and so individuals are comfortable to come and talk. The consultant also has a special mental health email address that only they can access and respond to any questions or concerns.
  5. Extensive training on suicide prevention for the consultant and learning and development and human resources staff. The company recently introduced Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) program. Four staff attended the weeklong training. Currently, there are two qualified facilitators who work in tandem to deliver this training. This is a critical part of supervisory and leadership training, and the company plans to provide a two-day workshop to all leaders and supervisors as part of their growth plans.

Getting everybody trained

“My goal is to have everybody in our Ontario operations train in one of our initiatives,” says Sobey.

“I also foresee the day when the spouses of our Agnico Eagle mine rescue team receive training to be able to detect mental health issues arising from a mine rescue situation the worker may have been exposed to while performing their duties.”

Once the Ontario training is completed, the company is looking to expand within the company to other provinces and other countries.

Program sustainability is key

“We are committed to making our mental health training successful and sustainable. Mental health awareness and stress and issues aren’t going anywhere. It’s going to stay here, so we need to make sure that we're setting ourselves up for success.”

Promotion, removing stigma, and sustainability are some of the key issues that Sobey emphasizes in his experience in building his company’s psychological health and safety system.

Along with the awareness training and the employee-driven Dig Deep group, the company also put mental health support messaging on company television screens, bulletin boards, and signage. And the changes Sobey has seen are encouraging.

“All of the training and messaging help reduce stigma. I  see it changing. I think the stigma is starting to be reduced but it will take continued education, information, and support to be sustainable.”

For more information, contact Workplace Safety North.


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