21 Questions: Exclusive interview with Sandra Lindberg

July 15, 2019
Sandra Lindberg – Drilling Supervisor at Drillcon Group

Sandra Lindberg is from Norsjö, in northern Sweden. She graduated in car mechanic studies in 2005 and after having her first child in 2007 embarked on a mining internship at Bergteamet (large Swedish mining services provider) that placed her in Malå and was completed in 2009. Sandra has numerous qualifications in drilling-related subjects, including an open-pit driller’s certificate from Atlas Copco.

Since 2008 Sandra has been core drilling for underground and surface operations in Sweden. She has drilled at the Northland open-pit mine in Pajala, and later, in an openpit mine in Kirkenes, Norway and she has been a machine operator as well. Having initially worked with Drillcon in 2014, in January 2018 she returned to the company, where a year later she became Site Supervisor at Renström, Sweden’s deepest underground mine for underground zinc, copper, lead, gold and silver.

In her spare time, she goes horse riding, manages her house and takes care of her children who enjoy various extracurricular activities, road trips, and package tours abroad.

Grigor Topev: How and when did you get started in the drilling business?

Sandra Lindberg: I started drilling in 2008 when I went to mining school in Malå (in the province of Lapland in Sweden). My planned two-month internship was at a company called Rate (this later became Bergteamet) where I worked until 2012, alongside being involved in a few short drilling side projects.

GT: Could you tell us about your most memorable experiences as a young driller?

SL: This is a hard question! I think one project that was special to me was a short side project in the center of Oslo. We were standing below a bridge and were supposed to drill six holes in an area of ground where they were re-doing the road. This was in the summer of 2010, so I had only been drilling for about two years. A small company in southern Sweden had hired me over the phone and contracted me out to a Norwegian company. The rig was a modified DE140 and I was not used to that, so my first reaction was brain-freeze. Because the diameter of the drill bit was 25 cm, lifting it for me was going to be a challenge. Thankfully, the rods were only a meter long and I was able to carry them over my head, which solved the problem. Everything had to be done differently compared to what I was used to when drilling in mines or out in a forest. When we finally started drilling it was not just like drilling rock or cement, although we had to drill those too – there were metal reinforcements, wood and a variety of other materials in the ground. It may not sound special, but at the time my 24-year-old self was fascinated.

GT: How many years of drilling experience did you have before you became a supervisor?

SL: I had nearly six years of core drilling experience in total and almost two years of open-pit drilling.

GT: What is the most exciting part of being a driller?

SL: I like the challenges that may arise, the special projects, and the results – seeing what interesting things might be revealed when I empty the inner tube for the core.

GT: What difficulties do women drillers face?

SL: Of course, there are physical challenges relating to strength. Most women do not have the same basic physiques as most men, although many aspects of the work are not concerned with strength but are more about technique. Taking me as an example, I am a small person: 154 cm tall with small hands, so I do not always have a physical advantage and I sometimes have to devise a trick or two to enable me to work in an effective, safe way. This usually involves working with my full body and getting really dirty doing it, but I get the job done and I love it.

Other difficulties have arisen from the behavior of some of the workers. One issue has been the attitude of a few men in the workplace who think this is not a job for women, which has led to harmful gossip and harassment. These are only some of the hurdles I have faced during my ten years in the mining business, although certain elements in our work culture have improved significantly. Today attitudes are a lot better. The use of offensive language has eased up and been replaced by good-natured humour, and women are accepted in the workplace much more easily. As a woman driller, I think it’s healthy to have a strong will and to dare to stand up for yourself when you feel it’s necessary.

GT: You have children; what insights can you offer into how to balance the roles of mother and driller?

SL: It is not always easy to balance home, kids and work, but I think my experience of motherhood has given me more patience and understanding than I had when I was younger, and that is something that helps me at work.

Thinking about the ‘home’ part of this question, my house is not always clean, but my children are happy. My days are long, but with this new role as a site supervisor, at least I have the opportunity to occasionally work from home, which lets me spend more time with my family. The hours spent working as a driller are not always the easiest ones and we start work before most schools or kindergartens are open. I’m very thankful that where we live, we have a kindergarten (daycare) that is open at night and in the early morning – without it, being a single mother in full-time employment would never have
worked out.

I have also been that kind of mother who works away from home, leaving my kids with extended family every other week. The positive side of that arrangement was that I could focus 100 % on my kids when I had my week off.

I don’t think my insights are any better than anyone else’s. Just remember that drilling can be a risky job, so make sure your kids know they are loved. Generally speaking, children are very clever, so talk to them, and take the time once in a while to do something a bit ‘extra’ that’s fun for both you and them.

GT: What is the deepest hole you have drilled?

SL: I think the deepest hole I have drilled was about 1200 m.

GT: In your experience, what is the most difficult challenge in drilling? And what is the most frequent?

SL: At the moment, we are drilling in a chloride. It absorbs water very easily and that makes it difficult to drill straight through it. If we are not careful with the drilling mud, it will swell quickly and start to build up torque due to the friction with the drill rods. That in turn increases the chances for the rod or core barrel to get stuck. I would say this is one of the biggest challenges I have met in drilling. Luckily it is a very particular and rare case.

The most frequent difficulties in drilling are the water return losses (full or partial), broken or stuck drill strings, frequent core blocks that all occur while you’re having to quickly deal with the different rock types as you drill through.

GT: Which site location has been the most interesting?

SL: As I mentioned earlier, Oslo was interesting because it was an unconventional project. I was also supposed to do a job on a small island outside of Kvitsö/Stavanger in Norway. Unfortunately, I had an injury and only spent a few days working there, but while I was there, I saw that it was unique.On this tiny island it was just us and some free-range sheep walking around.

But I have to say that every site is interesting in its own way. With each one we have to research the surroundings, the kind of rock, whether we will meet any problems or new kinds of challenges, where we can find water, what the risks are, and how we should set up our rig and equipment to establish a good site.

GT: What drill rigs have you worked with and which is your favourite?

SL: When it comes to core drill rigs, I have worked with the Atlas Copco/Epiroc rigs U4, U6, U8, 250, Onram (Sandvik) rigs DE130 and DE140. For open-pit rigs: Atlas Copco L8, Smart Roc D65, Smart Rig D7, Smart Rig D9 and DML. During my internship I drilled on the production rigs L2C and E2C. A full working Atlas Copco/Epiroc U6 is as easy as it gets, but still, if I could choose, I would probably go for an Onram (Sandvik) manual drill rig, either the DE130 or DE140.

With those, I can feel the drilling better and I have greater control over what’s going on down in the hole and can see how to approach the task.

GT: Are you using any new techniques or instruments for underground operations and if so, what are the benefits?

SL: We depend on the company for that, but I would say we have the latest of all the modern surface and down-hole tools. We use rig aligners and gyros when needed. Also, sometimes we use packers that flush the water down the outside of the rod and bring the return water back up on the inside. This lets us flush the core out backwards and is useful when drilling in chlorides.

GT: If there is an issue with productivity on-site what steps do you take to address the problem?

SL: First, I need to address where the issue lies, whether with the rig, the staff, or down the hole. Then I consider possible solutions. What is wrong with the rig? Do we need parts? (If so, where do we get them from and when?) Can we fix the problem ourselves or do we need a mechanic or electrician? If it is a staff issue, can we use our time at the rig more effectively? Will it help to rotate the staff – do some people work better together than others? Will a meeting help, giving everybody information about what’s going on and how things look? How can I motivate my staff better? Or if the issue is down the hole, what are our challenges there. Is there anything we can use to ease the problem, such as cement, different drill bits, or other tools? Will obtaining additional products be cost effective, considering the cost of the hole?

After these sorts of questions are answered I can take the next steps, and I try to keep an open dialogue with my own supervisors to get their advice.

Underground tripping operations

GT: Have you witnessed any serious incidents during your career? If yes, what lessons were learned?

SL: I have seen a co-worker or two getting seriously injured and being rushed to the hospital, and I have also been injured. To manage risk seriously, always think twice before doing anything, know that it’s okay to say stop if you think conditions are unsafe, and remember that gas is a silent killer, so make sure you follow all the safety procedures properly and you have all the necessary equipment like gas detectors
installed. Book regular health check-ups when working in such conditions.

GT: How can we ensure that safety policies are actually and properly practised?

SL: I don’t think we can ever ensure that every safety policy is implemented fully because there are a great number of different policies and there are many different kinds of people who are working on-site, and in the end, safety is the responsibility of staff; they need to make sure they are following the guidelines.

Although workers are getting better at adhering to safety rules and guidelines, I think we can all improve by being open minded and talking about safety more, and not being ashamed; you are not a coward for following the policies. We can all practise better safety by takingsimple steps such as kindly reminding co-workers to follow the policies and, most
importantly, by being a good role model.

GT: Do you find it more challenging working as a supervisor than a driller?

SL: I think so. Many things are not a problem at all; I facilitate all the equipment that is needed, I guide the workers when required, I maintain a good working relationship with the client and the local communities, and I make sure my paperwork is organised. The hardest thing for me about being a supervisor is going from being a friend to a ‘boss’. Making people content is not easy and not all the decisions and recommendations I make are appreciated. That is a part of the job that I have to accept.

Other challenges include going from working hard, doing a very physically demanding job (dirt, grease and sweat, etc) to spending a lot of time at the computer or on the phone, having a thousand things to remember and consider at any given moment and making sure I have the right information. That is not always as easy as it may sound.

The job is interesting in its own way, and challenging. I am learning a lot and evolving in many ways, but there are days I dream about drilling.

GT: If you could choose to work on any project anywhere in the world, which would you choose and why?

SL: There are so many projects I would love to be involved with and countries I would love to work in – to see a range of rock types, discover different challenges and their solutions, and to apply that learning to new projects. I would like to visit different types of mine, and try raise boring, also. In core drilling, I think the projects where you have to fly the rig to the site are interesting and would provide different challenges compared to home, which is northern Sweden. I work in Renströmsgruvan at the moment, outside of Skellefteå where we have four different mines running.

GT: What do you think the diamond drilling industry will look like in the future?

SL: I know there have been some recently implemented technologies that are already changing the way we work, like lifting arms for rods and tools to lift out inner rods, and these things will be improved. However, those innovations involve more data, and more data means more trouble. When it goes wrong, data is often harder to resolve than anything else and with it comes a host of software that needs to be continuously updated and checked.

Another change will be more women joining as the industry evolves and develops more tools and ways of working that suit us and make the job easier.

GT: Do you think that there should be more women working on-site out in the field?

SL: Yes, I think it is good to mix it up a little, the attitude or mood among the workers often changes for the better. And I believe women can do this job well, until it gets too physically tiring, but that issue is the same for some men.

GT: What changes do you think will improve the industry?

SL: I think the industry will continue to develop automation for working with machines more safely and that will hopefully make more people apply for this kind of work. Having WiFi in the mines has been a significant change and I would not be surprised if soon we will be able to connect to new drill rigs to change, update or control things. The road ahead will be an interesting one to travel.

GT: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become a driller?

SL: Stand tall, work hard, be interested, listen to others, accept that things will go wrong sometimes, have fun and dare to try things yourself and if that does not work, ask questions, and – most of all, stay positive!

Sandra handling a Smart 6 rig