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Boulby: Between Beauty and the Beast

Just like the strata of minerals that lie deep underground, so do the miners at ICL’s Boulby Mine, who reveal a sense of humour about their hazardous and demanding roles – even amid the seriousness with which they do their jobs. Ken Ryalls explores…

The Teesside area of the north east region of England is one of striking contrasts; an arresting mix of beautiful countryside and stunning coast, cheek by jowl with swaths of heavy industry. Towards the south, the Yorkshire Moors sit under cloud scudding skies. On bad days they are brooding and swept by harsh winds off the North Sea; lashing rain into every nook and crevice and down the necks of men and women forced to go about their business.

But in good weather they are a special place, forged by nature, over generations. Flint tools have been discovered in the ancient camps of the first hunters to tread these moors at the end of the last Ice Age.

To the north lie the huge industrial complexes of Teesside. A business powerhouse which flexed its mighty muscles some 170 years ago when a vast and rapid expansion of industry left the sky riven with clouds of thick, black smoke, scarring the sky and blocking out the sun.

Right upon the dividing line where natural beauty becomes the industrial beast sits the ICL potash mine at Boulby. Nestling in a valley on the edge of the moors some see it as a blot on the landscape. But it is the biggest private employer in the area and a vital mainstay of the local economy.

ICL UK

A view from underground

As with all business, the strive to improve and perfect is often what drives success. David Zvida, former Managing Director who was transferred to Boulby from his role as Senior Vice President at ICL’s Dead Sea Works said: “We are still in the process of determining where to make the improvements we need for our mine. We need to increase productivity while keeping down costs and increasing sales of our products. If we implement a plan to do these things we will be in a good position.”

Of course, every successful business needs such a plan: an overarching strategy is that is clearly defined and understood by the workforce. And as the blueprint for the next forty years at Boulby is finalized, it will become the task of the management team to deliver it. Among them is Mark Elliot  – Salt Production Manager. 

Miners at ICL UK

As I arrived in his busy office, he has just finished his shift and is dusty faced and dressed in his glaring orange hi-visibility kit; he asks if it is OK if I talk to ‘..a couple of the lads first..’ while he takes a shower. But he is held up by the constant arrivals and departures that he handles with calm authority, repeatedly apologizing to me for the interruptions. But this is the reality of being at the sharp end of an operational mine.

When he heads off to the showers, I spoke to the lads – Ben Libbey, Shift Overseer and continuous miner driver Ian Crawford.

“Basically if anything goes wrong down there it is all down to me,” laughs Ben as we shake hands. The forty-one-year-old is commendably confident without underestimating his responsibilities:

“When I get down there the first thing to do is to check the panel – the area where the men are going to work,” he explains. “Once I am sure it is safe I brief the team and let them get on with it. If all goes well I shouldn’t have too much to do,” he grins.

Again, the sense of humour that is never far from the surface. But like the strata of minerals that lie underground, these mean have a deep lying seam of seriousness. And because they know they have a dangerous and demanding job, many of them make sure they keep in shape in their spare time to ensure they can match up to the rigors that come with the territory: “I lift weights most days, play football, go for runs, I keep very active,” admits Ben.

A discussion about football ensues between him and Ian, at 44-years-old a keen amateur football player and fan of the local Middlesbrough team: “I’m a midfielder but the years see me dropping deeper and deeper into defense,” he smiles.

As the conversation develops, an underlying theme is not lost on me – teamwork is as essential to the success of this mine as it is to a football team. And this sense of teamwork is underpinned by an understanding of how their roles fit in to the overall picture:

“I fully understand how the minerals we extract are used,” says Ian. “I operate the machine that cuts the salt which has been here for millions of years since ancient seas dried up. It ensures that roads in the UK stay open even in the harshest winters. Also, because we live in a rural area, we know the value of potash in terms of healthy crops. But day in, day out, you just get on with your job,” he finishes.

ICL UK: Boulby Mine

As they get up to leave I ask if they think about how far under the surface of the earth they are going…and how far out under the North Sea?

“No,” throws back Ben. “The only thing that worries me is the size of the cable that hauls the lift and its load to and from the surface. It’s not very big,” he smiles.

As they walk out I reflect on their good humour, sense of responsibility, level headedness and commitment to teamwork. All vital traits in their harsh working environment. Traits that Mark Elliot believes are central to being a good miner. It is not an occupation for individuals.

We thank Ken Ryalls for this article.