The following is an article from Professor Andy Fourie which appeared in the Paste 2023 Supplement
Future Tails: an industry–university collaboration to provide
training for professionals working in the field of tailings
By Professor Andy Fourie, The University of Western Australia, Australia
Although there have been a number of high-profile failures of tailings storage facilities (TSFs) in recent years, including one in Australia in 2018, the failure of the Feijão (sometimes referred to as Brumadinho) TSF in Brazil in January 2019 has changed the industry irreversibly. Video footage of the failure provided graphic imagery of the sudden nature of the failure, and the
devastating flow of liquefied tailings that ensued. More than 260 fatalities occurred due to the flow failure and major legal proceedings are underway, with costs estimated to be many billions of dollars.
In reaction to the Feijão failure, the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) was developed, with the standard being launched in August 2020.
Among the many requirements detailed in the GISTM was the identified need to have personnel with dedicated and explicit responsibilities related to the management of TSFs. Of relevance to this discussion, particular roles that the GISTM requires are the engineer of record (EoR) and the responsible tailings facility engineer (RTFE). Although some companies have different terms for the latter position, such as responsible tailings facility person, the intended roles and responsibilities are
the same, and require someone with engineering qualifications and experience.
The specific roles identified in the GISTM, as well as the associated increase in demand for planning, design and construction supervision engineers in the tailings field has led to a rapid and dramatic increase in the demand for people with expertise in this field. Unfortunately, tailings engineering is not taught as a dedicated unit (e.g. a semester-long course) at any
universities internationally (to my knowledge). University curricula are already crammed with traditional technical courses and increasingly with predominantly nontechnical courses. Training in the specialised field of tailings engineering has thus become the responsibility primarily of industry, with many industry–university partnerships having been developed in the past two or three years to tackle this shortage of suitably qualified engineers. Future Tails is one of these partnerships.
Future Tails is a project, funded by BHP and Rio Tinto, based at The University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth, Australia. The primary focus is to prevent future catastrophic failures of TSFs.
To this end, Future Tails has three components: targeted research, preparation of a guidance e-book dealing with tailings engineering, and provision of relevant training.
This article deals with only the third of these components, i.e. provision of relevant training.
There are four levels of training under Future Tails, these being for senior executives (e.g. board members), senior engineers – the target being EoR level engineers, junior to mid-level tailings engineers plus those with overlapping tailings related responsibilities who may be more senior but lack a tailings background, and finally, site operational personnel.
Given space constraints, this article discusses only the third of these training programs, which is offered through a graduate certificate at UWA.
The Graduate Certificate in Tailings Management is a completely online program that has been developed to provide training for graduate and midlevel engineers working in tailings-related fields, as well as senior engineers who may be transitioning from other, related fields of engineering.
It is also relevant to senior personnel who have no training in tailings engineering but whose responsibilities include aspects of tailings engineering that potentially influence the performance of TSFs. An example is those responsible for planning activities, where inclusion of sufficient land for tailings deposition throughout the life of asset is critically important, but not always recognised.
The graduate certificate is a formal UWA qualification that will be awarded to those candidates who satisfy all the requirements of the 12 microcredentials.
The concept of micro-credentials is relatively new to many universities. The intention is often to provide relatively short modules that students can take while working – the intention being to stack these modules (micros) towards an eventual university accredited qualification. The tailings graduate certificate at UWA comprises of 12 microcredentials, each counting for two credit points. The micros are offered online, with bespoke training material having been prepared for each of the 12 micros, as discussed in more detail later in this article. Students can work through the learning material at their own pace, with practice worked examples provided, where relevant to the material being covered. There are no time-specific online lectures, as the intention is to enable students from across the globe to participate. However, each micro does have two one-hour online discussion sessions where students are able to pose questions regarding the material covered.
These discussion sessions are recorded and made available through the UWA learning management system. As the graduate certificate is a formal university award, assessments are necessary. These are usually an online test (or tests) and a written assignment (or assignments). Four tranches of micros run throughout the year, as outlined below.
Each micro runs for eight weeks, with up to three micros running concurrently.
In accordance with UWA’s expectations of the work required for two credit points (i.e. one micro-credential), the expected time commitment, for an average student, is 50 hours including all time spent on self-study. The 12 micros are batched into four units, where a unit is the UWA equivalent of a semester-long course and thus worth six credit points.
There are four units making up the graduate certificate, these being Introduction to Tailings Management, Tailings Operations and Water Management, Tailings Risk Evaluation, and Tailings Governance. As noted above, each of these units is made up of three micro-credentials.
Confused? Hopefully the table provided helps explain the structure of the graduate certificate.
The first micro-credential (Preparation, Transport and Deposition of Tailings) was first offered in 2021 and has been offered twice more since. The first students to graduate from this program will likely graduate in mid to late 2023. By the end of 2022, 172 students had participated in the program, with 76% of these students being from either BHP or Rio Tinto.
The online nature of the graduate certificate program has enabled students from across the world to participate.
Although most of the students to date have been based in Australia (71%), we have had students from 16 different countries participate, with Chile, the USA and Canada providing a number of students. Pleasingly, we have also had several students from developing countries participate, including from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Madagascar, Panama, Peru and Zambia.
As we receive feedback from students and from our sponsors (BHP and Rio Tinto), the micro-credentials will be reviewed and revised where necessary. With the tailings industry moving and transforming rapidly, it is essential that material be regularly updated, otherwise there is the risk of irrelevance occurring. Monthly meetings with our project sponsors have proved invaluable in helping to work towards constant benchmarking of what material is covered in the graduate certificate. The option will be provided in the future to upgrade the graduate certificate to a Master’s of Engineering degree by completing additional technical courses and a thesis.
Finally, it is stressed that the graduate certificate, although funded by BHP and Rio Tinto, is open to anyone with an interest in improving their skills and knowledge related to tailings. Further information, including entry requirements for admission to the graduate certificate, can be found at shorturl.at/ewGM2
AB Fourie, The University of Western