Kiruna LKAB Storyteller

Storyteller #32 – next level in the mine?

Just recently, top management has expressed itself in positive terms regarding plans for a new level in the Kiruna mine. The latest one, at 1365 meters below ground, has just recently been completed (although in use for some years already). Expected to last for about 15-20 years, it looks as if the Kirunavaara mine will continue to go deeper, although much is still uncertain. We recalled a discussion with a middle manager inside the gates that we had early on in the project, asking if a new main level is probable:

Yes, I think there’ll be a new level, in one way or another. It’s not sure it’ll look like the one on 1365 because 1365 is a luxury build. We got almost everything. Then it depends a bit on the conditions of the mountain down there. But the type of spaces we’ve done at 1365, I doubt that we’ll get them, for mountain mechanical reasons, on 1770 or something. But there might be other… I hope that in about ten years, then you’ll have other technological solutions for how to lift rocks, well, to solve rocks. Whatever those might be.

[we talk about zero-entry mining, no hands in the mine]

Yes, I’ve been involved in that a bit and there are many of these future projects that you: “Well, well, but just as long as he [sic!] doesn’t put up a tight time limit”, then I think we’ll get there soon, but…

[we talk about automation]

But we could have more robots, for sure. And I hope it will happen, partly to save people, not just in numbers but also their physics. We still have some risky jobs… [inaudible] It doesn’t matter if it falls down on a robot or if it gets the stone on top of it. There is no “ouch!”, just pull it out, repair it and then in with it again. So for that sake, I hope for zero entry.

Book Kiruna Management Researcher Worker

A unique workplace

They’re not easy to find and haven’t been re-issued, the 4×400 pages doctoral dissertation in economic history by Ulf Eriksson, entitled “Gruva och arbete. Kiirunavaara 1890-1990” (in Swedish, translated as “Mine and work. Kiirunavaara 1890-1990”). Published and defended in 1991 at Uppsala University, Eriksson (from Kiruna) presents an impressive, predominantly empirical, labour process history from inside the gates of the Kiruna mine.

We have once again got our hands on somebody else’s copies and couldn’t help translate a section since it triggers thoughts on the particular and peculiar workplace an underground mine constitutes. Let’s face it, a mine is not a clothing factory. Just think about going down the Kiruna mine and find yourself on a road linked to a road network of about 600 km, all underground. This presents a spatially interesting challenge to the organising of work and management control. Below, Eriksson reflects upon the difficulty of identifying any clear cause-and-effect relations between the introduction and development of new technology and the way work was organised, and argues that the mountain itself shouldn’t be underestimated:

“The perhaps single most important reason for the lack of immediate and direct causality-arrows between technology and organisation was that an adjustment always had to be done to the specific nature of the object of work, that is, to the limitations set by the mountain and the ore body’s geographic and structural peculiarities for the organisation of work. This, for example, was actualised in the case of management’s possibilities to in practice direct and control the work.” (Eriksson 1991, part III: 152)

Kiruna LKAB Nature Storyteller

Storyteller #13 – smoke and sustainability

Storyteller #13 is a woman, working in a white-collar position. We asked:

– When you look at the mine, what kind of images do you get (in your head)?

– When you come back from the mountains, we’re very often in the mountains to ski, so when we drive back into town, then you have the view of the (the old) open pit and the backside of the works, which you don’t see from town. Then we use to look and try to decide if there’s a lot of smoke, is production good or how does it look? It’s still the lifeblood in society. I think most feel that they want the mines and the operations to do well.

– Another type of question. If you read about mining, and we’re, and have been for many years now, interested in sustainable development, and efforts to run a “sustainable mine”, how do you think about that? I’ve to be honest and say that it sounds like an oxymoron, a self-contradiction.

– Yes, of course, sure it is. You cannot do a, you cannot have a mine without making a hole and a serious wound in the ground and in nature. You cannot have a mine without having a large environmental impact from the mine. But at the same time, those who protest against mine operations, such as in the large riots in Kallak, Jokkmokk, they still want a mobile phone, they want to bike, they make use of trains and they use vehicles and transports, and they maybe fly from the south of Sweden to get up here. They make use of societal structures and such, then we need these metals and products that come from the mining operations. We need them, and at the same time we have chosen a way of living that demands these resources, these natural resources. I believe that if you want these resources within the country’s borders, then you have to show solidarity and use part of your land for this in order to extract these resources from the ground. Globally, it might even be good to have a mine and mining operations in Sweden where you have grand rules that are environmentally adapted, that enable a somewhat more sustainable mine than what they perhaps have in Brazil.

[see also post from May 25, 2015, on checking the plumes of smoke]
Kiruna Storyteller Worker

Storyteller #1 – technology development

Our first storyteller is a man from Kiruna and who used to work underground with drilling in the late 1970s. Here’s a story from working the morning shift back then:

– When you came up, above ground, during Winter, it was dark. That’s how you lived. But, technology and work environment, technology development, that was the topic we talked about during our breaks. Our fantasies about the future were that you could be inside a cabin and it’ll all be isolated so that you could have a coffee machine and listen to cassette tapes. You laughed at it then, that was just…

– It was visionary, it was utopian, or…

– But three years later, they had implemented it. These drill rigs arrived. They were built-in. And then there was a drill cassette where all drills were in a cassette so that you didn’t have to go out and change them manually, only when they got stuck. So it came very fast, technology development.

– Did you loose people then? I mean…

– In numbers… No, we didn’t.

Documentary Iron Kiruna LKAB Luleå Management Moviemaking Researcher Sweden Union Worker

Work and mining

A video interview on work and mining with professor Jan Johansson, Luleå, Sweden (11 minutes):

Management Music Worker


“No hands in the mine” – a Utopian tale driven by technological advances, but also very much a real thing, something that is happening in the world of mining. It is thus not something that only belongs to the visionary, it is also very strategic and concrete. Over time, there are less hands in the mine as miners are replaced by machines or moved to control rooms above ground, joysticking the machines.

A research group at Johan’s university in Luleå estimates that we might see the first fully automated mine in about twenty years and Sweden is in the forefront. Click here for a news flash of their research (unfortunately in Swedish).

It is also, of course, a story of tensions, well-covered in social history in general and management history in particular. Technology development, and technological processes, and their relations to manual labour have many facets. And indeed, many facets have been revealed by social scientists and arts. Automation might make work less hard and risky, but it might also make it less humane, more mundane, and even play a part in the deskilling of labour.

In the song below, a few different perspectives of this story is covered. The song itself is meant to be moving (different chord structures for the same basics) while also being rather monotone. Iggy Pop’s “Mass production” was a great inspiring peace. Enjoy the song by clicking on the file just below (you might have to reload this page for the audiofile to show!):


Lyrics: Johan Sandström
Music: Tommy Jensen
Instruments and vocals: Tommy Jensen

Science says hey
Twenty years from now
The underground workers
Are call-center miners

Company says hey
Twenty years from now
The hands to control
Are holding the stick

The operator says hey
But can’t be seen
A whisper in the dark
A cyber voice

The manager says hey
It’s safety first
From stones on head
To the paper-cut miner

”Proximity detection” in a global mine
Manual labour in an automated mine
Facing the unknown in a standardized mine

”Proximity detection” in a global mine

The mine says hey
More human flexibility
More human adaptability
Too much technology

Automation, automation
No hands in the mine
Automation, automation
No minds in the mine
Automation, automation
No mine without hands
Automation, automation
No mine without minds

Automation, automation, automation



Cameco Canada Management Uranium Worker

Down the uranium mine

Follow Johan underground in the McArthur River uranium mine (MCA).

Safety first. I’m taken to a locker room where I get the gear and the information necessary to be allowed underground. I then meet my guide, Curtis, a maintenance foreman. He used to work with oil sands in Alberta, but the long hours commuting to work meant too much time away from home and family in Saskatchewan. He has now been with Cameco and at MCA for about six years and is glad he made the change.

Curtis explains how the mine works by drawing on the whiteboard in his office above ground. He’s a good educator. At MCA, the methods they use are raiseboredrilling, blasthole stoping and boxhole boring, a unique combination for a uranium mine. One thing that strikes me and that I didn’t know a priori was that every hole they drill and extract from is filled with concrete, making Cameco a very large producer and user of concrete.

There are no roads to take you underground. Everything – humans, tools and machines – are transported with the hoists (more or less big elevators) down the mine, at about 600 metres underground. Given the size of the machines that work underground, it was a bit mindboggling. I rode the hoist with about a dozen people and it was crowded.

When underground, it is wet and greasy and the ‘artificial’ winds are cold and strong in some areas, given the ventilation system (the air in the mine is renewed about every 15 minutes). There is basically no traffic, which is a big contrast to the Kiruna mine and its 600 km roads underground. There is still a rather complicated road system at MCA. Curtis estimates that it takes about six months to learn how to get around underground (but we still got lost, sorry Curtis :-). He says that visitors are usually surprised that there are light and concrete roads in the mine. I’m not.

The first thing Curtis do when arriving underground is to sign workers’ safetycards. This is a routine, every day, sometimes two times a day. Every worker has a card and has to fill it in every day. Part of the card asks the worker if he or she has done anything to improve safety today. I look at Curtis with some skepticism. He picks up on it and says that it doesn’t have to be big things. It can simply be to make sure that work stations and walkways are free from rubbish. My impression is also that the card-checking seems to be a rather old-fashioned type of management control, but from what I could observe, the control of the cards also meant that a face-to-face conversation between manager and worker took place in which other work-related things also were discussed (I’ll come back to the relation between worker/manager at a fly-in/fly-out site such as MCA in another blogpost).

We take coffee with a group of workers. Curtis introduces me and the project, and all go silent. I guess I’m used to the reaction by now, but eventually the ice is broken and I get to talk to a couple of workers about their experiences working at MCA. Curtis then sets us up in a small truck and we start the tour of the mine. Everywhere we go there is a mix of meeting machines/technology (”every machine is a million dollar down here”) and different workers. Curtis does a good job introducing me and I get to talk to Ray from Prince Albert, Steve from Cumberland, Ralph from Saskatoon, a worker from Nova Scotia, and many more. I get to see the raisebores and the stopeblasting, learn the underground signal system for vehicles (green and red lights, ropes to pull to switch the light), see the officer who walks the mine measuring the air quality (see picture “Air quality”), see the loaders (which is semi-automated so that contact with uranium is minimized; see the pictures “The remote” and “Driving by distance”), meet with a mine rescue team practising (as in most mines, the biggest risks are fire and water) etc.

Talking to Shane, a young, aboriginal worker who has worked his way up the underground hierarchy, now operating the most advanced machines, Curtis points to the road we’re standing on: “There’s uranium”. Shane brings out the hose and clears the uranium from other material, and for sure, there it is, on the road, black and thick, like oil on the ground (see the picture “Uranium”). I ask Curtis about radiation and he shows me his meter, a slight reaction but nowhere near any risks to us.

We make our way back to the hoist. Time to go up.

Music Worker

Metal machine emotions

Listen to a song about having feelings for a machine by clicking the bar below:

The lyrics appears at the end of the text below.

What is the greatest divide created by science? One candidate must be the division between body and mind. This division has ever since Rene Descartes marked the superiority of rationality and the inferiority of the body and its related sensations (such as emotions, pleasures, pain). Organization theory is in this sense a typical scientific genre, and therefore we know quite a lot about rationality and deviations from this mindful state (bounded rationality, irrationality). But, less is known about how bodily sensations affect organizational members, especially so regarding how the body enables people to learn how to work and how to cope with work – a key issue in the labor process. The body is here usually slotted to belong to the irrational.

But universities and its all different sub-disciplines are of course not completely empty of bodily research – far from it. In that sense ‘bodily research’ has a scientific backlog that we can learn from. At least we can do this when it comes to how both body and mind matter to a person, or how a person engages body and mind at work – alone or in relations with others. But what happens if we extend the body and mind relation to also include machines? It becomes harder, but not impossible. Concepts such as cyborgs (Donna Haraway), heterogeneous materiality (John Law, Kevin Hetherington, Tommy Jensen) and actants (Bruno Latour and Barbara Czarniawska) have increased our understanding of human-machine interactions, suggesting that it is not obvious that the human has a superior position and is in control of the events. The relation, then, can be symmetrical. It is only in retrospect we know whether humans or machines had agency. Humans don’t always control evens – machines interfere and change peoples’ perceptions and actions, even their world view.

That said, a question still remains: has this kind of research broken the divide between body and mind? Or could it be that the human-machine symmetry is assumed from the point of view of mind and rationality? We think so. A common reading is that machines are inscribed with human scripts (that are rationally designed) and that this may or may not affect other humans – those who engage with the machines – in such a way that their capacity of acting rational is decreased or completely drained. But, of course, the body is assumed to have a role. As, for instance, in a lack of physical strength or stamina, which implies that the human is not capable of handling the machine. But besides physical attributes and limitations, the body appears as defunct of role and function, at least beyond playing an irrational part of a human state of affairs.

As you might guess, we’re moving closer to the labor process in our case, the Kiruna mine. Need it be irrational for a worker to claim having emotions for a machine, such as a truck? It might seem strange, but is it irrational? We think not. The body’s non-physical attributes assist the mind and sometimes govern and control the mind in such a way that is essential for humans in order to be able to cope, learn and thrive in the world of work (philosophers such as Hans Jonas makes a similar claim in relation to our capability of taking moral responsibility).

When we spend several hours underground with a driver, in a heavy truck, we realize how much the body are at work at work and how deeply it affects the worker. Imagine, for instance, spending years in a heavy loaded truck (40 tons) that automatically breaks (geared by the trucks exhaust-system) when riding downhill. The truck pushes the breaks, not the human, and every time the body feels this, the eyes and ears, together with the whole body’s navigation system (including the brain), learns to cope with this (and also sense when it is about to happen). Or when the worker (has to) learn the geometry of the truck, to sense when there is enough space left to continue a turn, in a narrow curve, having another truck passing by the same time, and so on.

So, it does not seem irrational to hear a truck driver saying: “Come on, dear Pearl, you can make it”, followed by a: “You did it, good girl”, when going upwards at 25 degrees (with 40 tons on the flatbed). Or saying that: “See, this truck is actually too new and sophisticated to do [her] duty down here”. Or stroking it gently on it’s side when checking for flat tires. It is hard to claim that this kind of intervention has any effect on the machine, but it surely affects the worker, enabling s/he to work long hours, in narrow tunnels, on slippery roads, in an up-beat tempo (the ore has to be delivered), in a cabin in which every bump, sound, noise, air-pressure (1365 meters below), smell etc., continuously work on both body and mind. But the extension of the body and mind to include machines don’t only apply to workers and the labor process, it also affects us as working researchers. Could we include metal machine emotions and allow ourselves refraining from categorizing it as something irrational, without the bodily experience of riding with a truck for several hours in the mine. Definitely not!

machine emotions
Text, music, song and instruments (including drum programing): Tommy Jensen

I know my pearl
Every sound and every movement
She surprises me
Knocking my bones and shocking my senses

I listen to pearl
She tells me when the wheels loose its grip
When to take a break
When to relax and when to be intense

Metal machine emotions
A strange sensation
Metal machine emotions
Call it the truckin’ effect
Never letting me down
Going upwards at 25°

I love my pearl
Thousands of miles, thousands of thoughts
Twelve gears and tvelwe wheels
Roaring through the darkness

I care for my pearl
Machine against rocks and water
She is too good to be here
A short and brutish life

Metal machine emotions
A strange sensation
Metal machine emotions
Call it the truckin’ effect
Never letting me down
Going upwards at 25°