Sites Step Up to New Social Distancing Paradigm

01 July 2020

(July 1, 2020) For Derek Cooke, fighting coronavirus requires a healthy dose of spreading the word mixed with equal amounts of patience and persistence. 

Sharing ideas about how best to protect employees with sustainable social distancing practices has become one of the most potent forms of defense against the coronavirus, said Cooke, President-Cerro Verde.  

Working all the coronavirus mitigation efforts into already existing processes is the new reality for Freeport-McMoRan around the world.  

“One of the best things we’ve been doing is simply talking to our folks, getting their ideas and calling our peers at Morenci or Sierrita to bounce questions off one another like ‘How many people are you putting in a van?’” he said. “There’s been a lot of sharing of best practices; we’re all learning from each other.”  

Freeport-McMoRan has tackled the pandemic from all possible angles with everything from screening, testing, treatment and contact tracing to building extra hospital capacity and temporary quarantine areas and living quarters for employees.  

But the real strength of the company’s response to the pandemic rests in the power of employees to understand and implement social distancing and safe hygiene practices on and off the job.  


“States and communities are opening up, but this virus is not going away, and one of the best ways to maneuver through these infectious risks is for everyone to continue to follow what we call the three Ws:  Washing hands, Wearing a mask and Watching your social distancing,” said Dr. Richard Vinroot, Vice President and Medical Director. “And that’s not just at work, but when our employees are at home as well, which is why we ask everyone to avoid large gatherings.”  


Often this is easier said than done, especially with cabin fever hitting most people after months of lockdown. There’s also the pull of wanting to be around family and friends, doing normal activities together outside of work. But keeping coronavirus at bay really is in each of our hands and requires continued vigilance, for example: 


  • Remain 6 feet from others and move away from someone if they are closer than 6 feet 
  • Wear a mask when social distance may not be possible, such as when in vehicles, office settings or where groups are involved 
  • Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face 


It is just as important to follow these precautions when not at work to help prevent the virus from spreading to family or coworkers.

A new and necessary normal 

In Peru, which didn’t document its first coronavirus case until the first week of March, the pandemic now has hospitals across the country at near capacity, including in Arequipa, the closest large city to Cerro Verde.  

“The conditions in Peru and in Arequipa are not ideal. Everything we do is focused on the health and safety of our people and their families, because this is a whole new world with a whole new normal,” Cooke said. “We’re safer here at the mine than we are in the surrounding community and the rest of country, and we’re going to keep it that way.”  

Everyone at Cerro Verde wears masks everywhere on the job, and employees have learned to practice good hygiene and implement social distancing. It’s a transformation that has not been easy, which is where the patience and persistence come in.   


“Our employees at Cerro Verde are great people and the culture is one of close contact – hugging, handshakes and kissing on the cheek. It’s a difficult change, but I’ve been really impressed with how our people have taken the issue personally, how they watch out for one another and how quickly they’ve  adopted these behaviors – especially social distancing.” 


A lot to learn 

That same persistence and vigilance is paying off in good practices at PT Freeport Indonesia’s Grasberg Block Cave underground mine.  

For GBC Rail Construction Supervisor Alexander Mone, it’s understandable that employees require occasional reminding about working “a new careful way.” 

“People had to become familiar with the new measures, the revised plan and all the new work protocols, and at the same time, they also had to learn to work with new preventive measures from wearing gloves and face masks to practicing good hygiene at all times,” Mone said. “We are continually reminding everyone about these measures on a daily basis, and we’re also emphasizing the importance of getting enough sleep and eating well.”  


A higher bar of safety 

At Sierrita, the mindset David Rhoades and team are trying to instill is one where employees don’t just toe the line on the new normal but rather clear it – and then some – by doing everything they can to limit the spread of the virus.  

Step out of a truck parked in a lot at a company site and if you’ve neglected to put your safety glasses on, you won’t get far before someone politely but forcefully tells you to don them. That’s the safety culture that has been nurtured and maintained, the same culture that empowers any employee regardless of their job title or tenure to speak up and stop the job if they see something unsafe.    

That’s the same culture change people need to attain with social distancing, said Rhoades, General Manager-Sierrita.  

“With every encounter our employees have, we want them to think ‘If this person has the virus, how am I going to protect myself?’” Rhoades said. “As things open up in the outside world, there's more and more exposure, so it's even more critical for us to do proper social distancing.” 


Sierrita’s contact tracing process – getting a list of the people who have been in close contact with someone who tests positive to help limit the spread – already has yielded evidence that employees there have taken social distancing to heart.  


“We had two instances where employees tested positive, and when asked to list co-workers they’d come in close contact with, their answer was zero, so that’s our goal. That’s means those employees and their co-workers were properly social distancing,” Rhoades said. 


However, an opposite result occurred when an employee tested positive for coronavirus and listed the entire crew as close contacts. All team members were required to quarantine for 14 days. 

“This is a perfect example of why we want to limit contact through social distancing however we can, and we’re continuing to look for ways we can better do that,” Rhoades said.  


Did You Know?  

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that wearing a mask significantly reduces the spread of COVID-19 from infected persons more than any public health measure.  


The study, which looked at data from Italy, New York and Wuhan China, was published June 11 in the academy’s journal. It identified airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19 and concluded that “the wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission.”  

Sierrita & sites around the world are implementing new practices to prevent the spread of covid-19.
PTFI employees in underground mining track construction follow new guidelines to protect each other.
To prevent the spread of the corona virus, employees in El Paso use masks.
Social distancing throughout the site is a powerful defense against the corona virus.

Sharing sustainable social distancing practices across sites has become one of the company’s most potent defenses against the spread of COVID-19. 

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