During the past week there have been numerous media reports of a dramatic spread of the coronavirus in Gällivare. A spread that, according to several of these reports, has generally been linked to LKAB's operations and, specifically, the planned maintenance stop that was carried out in Malmberget in early May.
Among other things, reports have stated that LKAB, our co-workers and our contractors have not taken the risk of the spread of the virus seriously.
In this context, we wish to clarify the inconsistencies that have appeared in media reports and which are of great importance to us, both as a major employer regionally in Norrbotten and as a representative of a Swedish industry that has assumed a large and complex responsibility during a pandemic which now threatens to result in a worldwide economic downturn:
From the outset we have taken the threat of the pandemic very seriously and have worked hard to adapt our operations in order to comply with the recommendations of the Public Health Agency of Sweden. We have, in fact, conducted a large-scale maintenance stop in Malmberget precisely as we did in Kiruna earlier during the pandemic. Here, the personnel involved included more than 800 people representing many contractors, of which 90% came from the region. They executed some 1,500 work orders during the maintenance stop in Malmberget's two processing plants in May.
Maintenance stops vital to ensure the safety of our co-workers
For us, as well as for many other companies in the resources and manufacturing sectors, this type of maintenance stop is vital for two reasons.
- Firstly, it is necessary to ensure the safety of our co-workers in our operations and to meet legal and regulatory requirements.
- The second reason is that it is essential for preventing the long-term and very costly consequences of downtime in plants and machinery.
A processing plant is made up of tens of thousands of moving parts and electronic components that must be frequently maintained in order to function properly and safely. Day-to-day maintenance and time for more extensive maintenance work, which is carried out during planned maintenance downtime, are necessary; otherwise, the human and financial consequences can be very dire.
Special risk-assessment plans were developed
Essential maintenance works this year were adapted in line with the special circumstances posed by the pandemic.
We developed special risk-assessment plans based on the risk of covid-19, which resulted in a wide range of measures out of care for our employees, our subcontractors and society at large, including the following:
- Different contractors worked with different machines, in order to avoid contact among different maintenance crews, and their use of showers and changing rooms was separated.
- The work tasks were more widely distributed over all hours of the day and night.
- Canteens were closed to contractors, who instead ordered food from food trucks, and beverage machines were placed further apart.
- New routines for digital communication were developed and applied, in order to minimize physical contact.
- Hygiene information was distributed and coronavirus-related signs with reminders were in place before the start of the maintenance stop.
- Contractors had to bring their own toilets, and extra cleaning of areas including lavatories was ordered.
Committed Safety Officers acted with consensus together with LKAB
Information concerning directives was provided to both employees and contractors, and around twenty safety officers conducted safety rounds to ensure that these directives were followed. The entire process was carried out with consensus and with great commitment on the part of our safety officers. When we saw deviations or identified risks, remedial measures were taken, and our safety officers are of the opinion that this functioned satisfactorily in all respects.
Our planning work is also something that Norrbotten's chief medical officer of infectious diseases, Anders Nystedt, described at the Public Health Agency's press conference on June 25 as something that "could make any Swedish medical officer of infectious diseases teary-eyed with happiness".
Not yet time to relax our efforts
The situation will continue to be trying in many ways and on different levels until the spread of the virus has diminished. On June 8 it became evident that it is too soon to relax our efforts. From that date and through the following week we noted a dramatic increase of infection among LKAB personnel; that was more than a month after the maintenance stop begun and two weeks after the general spread of infection in Gällivare appeared to have increased. The latter did not begin among personnel who were involved in the maintenance stop.
Even so, we responded decisively by initiating contact tracing internally. Personnel who had had contact with those infected were quarantined. The infection had spread rapidly; in the third week of June we went from 2 to 28 confirmed cases just before midsummer. Although several are still ill, some of them seriously, the situation has still improved due to decisive measures and nearly half of those infected have now been given a clean bill of health.
A matter of the safety of our co-workers and our communities
We are on the right track, but we will continue to work diligently and with all available means to continue to limit the spread of infection. It's a matter of the safety of our co-workers and our communities.
We will continue to follow the authorities' advice as well as our own directives aimed at protecting our co-workers and other people in the communities of Malmfälten. With an accelerated spread of infection, we have also seen that we cannot let our guard down, and that quick and carefully prepared measures are effective.
We follow the Swedish strategy
The overall Swedish strategy to combat the pandemic has so far focused on long-term sustainability and perseverance. For Swedish industry, combining a functioning operation with the highest possible level of safety to prevent the spread of a virus is a challenging tightrope walk. In that context, if we as a company are, based on questionable grounds, accused of acting irresponsibly and rashly, we are the first to suffer. But this also places others, who are trying to maintain a functioning operation in a responsible way, at risk.
The cause of the rapid spread of the virus in Gällivare is still unclear. As a company, we naturally take our responsibility by constantly evaluating and, if necessary, changing our measures against the spread of infection in the communities. However, the kind of speculation that is now circulating unchecked in the media does nothing to support the national efforts to combat a serious threat to both life and health and, by extension, our economy and common welfare.
Jan Moström, President and CEO of LKAB