A long career in mining security

SMART Mining Security Solutions 2024 Editor's Choice, Security Services & Risk Management, Mining (Industry)

Nash Lutchman recently retired from a security and law enforcement career, initially as a police officer for some 17 years, and for the past 20 years as a leader of risk and security operations in the mining industry – in diamond, platinum, and gold mining, to be specific.


Nash Lutchman.

With all the challenges mines face under the banner of ‘risk management’, into which we place physical security and various other risk mitigation measures, SMART Security Solutions approached Nash early in his first year of retirement to find out how he has seen the security operations in mines change over the years.

Summing up a 20-year journey of security operations in one article means we can only touch on a few subjects without going into any real depth. However, the tour of duty that Nash has been on clearly indicates how the risks have changed or evolved and how security operations have consequently had to change and continue to change to meet these challenges.

Insider threats

When Nash entered the mining sector, he says mining security programmes were primarily inward-focused. In the late 1990s and early 2000s mines put time and money into managing insider threats from an operational safeguarding perspective. In terms of capital investment to create secure environments for its precious minerals and stones and to monitor and maintain these environments, mines invested heavily in leading-edge physical and technology-driven security measures.

From an operational security perspective, however, the emphasis was on managing the insider threat by typically ‘policing’ employees. This was achieved largely through designing processes, procedures, and industrial environments to deter employees and contractors working with, or in the vicinity of precious minerals, thus limiting the pilfering of the product.

Access control systems were designed to strictly control which employees entered or worked in areas where precious minerals were present.

Industrial environments were largely designed and engineered to minimise contact between people and minerals. Areas within processing and reduction plants were zoned in terms of low risk, medium risk, and high risk. Employees were ‘zoned’ accordingly to access or work in these areas.

The layered approach saw physical barriers restricting entrance to different areas, with more stringent security protocols added on as the risk classification increased. Access was primarily managed through turnstiles, magnetic locks, and proximity cards.

In some instances, access was managed through rules-based access control measures. This means that access to certain areas, or equipment for that matter, was managed according to a set of predetermined rules and permissions. If a maintenance worker was scheduled to enter the area and replace a pump, for example, the mine would have used past experience to know that the job would take a certain amount of time. The system would automatically flag an anomaly if the job took too long or if the individual left too early. This would result in mine security applying more robust controls to the incident, such as conducting a more stringent search of the person when they exited the restricted area, reviewing video footage to see if the task had been completed correctly, or even registering the individual as a person of interest with the investigation team.

Interestingly, Nash says that even in the early 2000s, a rudimentary form of facial recognition was used in some instances to control access to high-risk areas.

He provides an example of how this worked. When a worker had a reason to enter a high-risk zone, he would swipe his proximity card at the card reader. This would activate the ‘picture comparison’ control, meaning that the worker’s photograph would come up on a screen in the control room. An operator in the control room would then ask the worker to look into the CCTV camera, and the operator would then compare the live image on the monitor to the photograph image on file. On this basis, the operator would decide whether to grant access or not. Clearly not a foolproof control.

On the point of facial recognition, Nash chuckles as he recalls stories related to him about homing pigeons being used to smuggle diamonds out of processing plants, almost like one would use drones today. Allegedly, dishonest employees would put stolen diamonds in a bag, hang them over a pigeon’s neck, and literally fly the diamonds out. As the urban legend goes, this innovative way of using homing pigeons to breach high fences and large tracts of ‘no man’s land’ was discovered when an apparent overzealous employee had put too many diamonds into the bag, weighing the pigeon down, causing it to settle inside the perimeter of the processing plant where it was discovered by mining security.

Expanded focus to deal with additional threats

It should be noted that mines did not avoid dealing with external risks in the past, as service providers selling physical security can attest, it was simply not the primary focus. On reflection, Nash agrees that the risk landscape at that time warranted this inward focus, but the industry soon realised that more effort was needed in addressing external threats, which escalated over the last two decades.

At the time, mines experienced a spate of petty or nuisance crimes, mostly manifesting in individuals scavenging mine sites to pick up something of value they could use or flog to the scrap dealers. Generally, these scavengers were pretty harmless, submitting to mine security and very seldom resisting apprehension. Furthermore, appropriate safeguarding measures were in place when precious metals and stones were transferred from vaults onto armoured cars, helicopters, and aeroplanes, primarily to resist armed attacks on the precious cargo.

These days, hostile attacks on mines, led by mobs armed with high-calibre weapons and even armour-piercing ammunition, are now commonplace in South Africa as security conditions continue to deteriorate in the country. The rampant crime rate, the widespread corruption, and our poorly performing state organs drive organised crime activities, which manifest as high levels of serious and violent crime.

This threat is external and is much more sinister and dangerous than employee pilferage. These days, security officers on the ground who form a line of defence against these attacks must be physically and emotionally fit, well-trained, and well-equipped. The image of a security officer of the past with a baton and a whistle has shifted to one that is combat-ready, armed, and tactically prepared to respond to imminent hostilities. Armoured vehicles have now replaced soft-skinned vehicles, and the focus of mining security programmes has now shifted from employee pilferage to dealing with external threats such as armed robberies, illegal mining, damage to, and theft of copper infrastructure, violence and extortion at mining sites, civil disobedience, cybercrimes, and corruption.

Back in the day, as part of external risk management, mines vetted potential employees, contractors, and vendors in an effort to pre-empt any risk that could be unwittingly injected into the business. These days, the vetting processes are much more vigorous and have been broadened to consider an array of multifaceted risk features. Over and above third-party verification of identity, qualifications, criminal records, civil and financial judgements, and legal competencies, amongst others, the vetting process used today usually includes self-declarations as well.

The internal risks have also evolved from a pilferage focus to include jobs for sale, embezzlement, and procurement-related offences, amongst others. For example, people working in sensitive positions could create ghost workers, override controls, process fake invoices, manipulate tenders, or supply sensitive information to syndicates. Mining security programmes have evolved from being largely guarding in nature to include specialised risk and governance control functions, security risk intelligence, working with big data, analytics, and these programmes are technologies enabled as well, boasting unmanned aerial vehicles, artificial intelligence, machine learning, as well as augmented and virtual reality amongst others.

Increasing violence

Ethnic violence, or faction fights, also fuelled by and against foreign nationals working on mines, were very much part of the mining landscape from the 1880s and persisted into the 1980s. Many mining houses equipped themselves with ‘riot’ vehicles and ‘riot’ teams to manage incidents of ethnic violence and riots on their mines. In the mid 1980s, labour unions also took up the struggle for worker rights in a more militant fashion, and on-mine strikes became more violent. This period also saw the birth of NUM in 1982 and COSATU in 1985 and forced mining houses to adapt their security programmes to deal with public disorder and crowd control on their mining rights.

After the new South Africa’s honeymoon period and the promise of a probable rainbow nation, and whilst not widely reported, the social chaos that marked the first decade of the 21st century saw mining houses forced to adapt their security programmes to deal with violent community unrests and community action against their operations. By this time the Public Order Policing Unit of the South African Police Service was a mere shadow of its former self, fast showing signs of bleeding expertise and labouring under a lack of specialised resources to deal with widespread community-led activism and labour strikes, leaving businesses to fend for themselves. The July 2021 civil disobedience, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, and the subsequent looting and destruction exposed the state’s inability to manage civil disobedience swiftly and effectively.

ESG and sustainable development programmes, amongst others, also compelled mines to embark on a process to reimagine and reinvent the mining sector. As an example, this saw many mines changing how they housed and supported the social structure of workers – creating sustainable towns for mine workers and their families instead of the hostels, which served as accommodation for many in the past. Unfortunately, to some extent, this came at a time when South Africa had fallen down the global gold producers ranking and in an economic environment where precious metals producers are price takers. Increasing overhead costs, regulatory uncertainty, and waning investor confidence are also factors that contribute to the economically challenging environment that mines operate in.

This contributes to job losses, impairs business development, and puts pressure on security budgets, which subsequently undermines efficiency in any security programme.

All this created a melting pot that dramatically changed the risk operations on mines. It also gave rise to more sophisticated syndicate threats. Criminal syndicates were always present in the mining industry – it is where the money is. However, the melting pot and loss of jobs as South Africa’s gold output started falling, matched by the seemingly ever-increasing unemployment rate in the country, added fuel to the criminal syndicate fire.

The state of widespread corruption with impunity and poorly performing official criminal justice structures makes it ‘safe’ for criminal syndicates to act more brazenly, no longer feeling the need to operate ‘under the radar’. Today’s illegal mining operations are one of the symptoms of this chaos and have become operations that have grown from something that happened only here and there to an organised criminal enterprise with its own investment streams, supply chains and support structures. Nash adds that mining executives and security alike did not expect this rapid growth of illegal mining activities in operating mines due to the complexity and safety challenges inherent to any mining operations, but illegal syndicates are not concerned about the health and safety of their illegal miners. As a result, you will find them in the depths of the mines that are not safe for security and proto teams to venture into to track and retrieve illegal miners. Employee collusion and corruption is perhaps the single biggest factor seeing illegal mining activities in operating mines continue unabated. There are many successes in apprehending illegal miners and removing them from the mine; they just keep coming back.

If one looks at the methodology employed by mines, one can understand the temptation to illegal mining syndicates. In the Gauteng gold fields, for example, rich deposits of gold were mined, and when the profits declined to a certain point in mining areas no longer commercially viable to mine, the miners moved to new areas offering a richer yield. There was still gold to mine, but not in the volumes required. Additionally, safe mining requires the mines to leave rich deposits untouched, serving as pillars to prevent ground collapse in the area. These locations are where illegal miners focus their attention, making use of abandoned shafts and mines without the safety or environmental concerns legitimate mines take cognisance of.

Naturally, turf wars are a reality among criminal gangs, which adds to mining risk management’s complexity. Lethal violence has grown over time and reached ridiculous levels, necessitating mining security to deploy tactical response units that are well-armed and well-trained to defend against the criminal onslaught.

Response teams take on the task

The violent crimes faced by mines are not limited to illegal mining. Every mine has a wealth of equipment and infrastructure that can be stolen – such as copper – which can be profitably disposed of through supposedly legitimate recycling businesses (approximately 150 000 tonnes of copper scrap is legally traded in South Africa each year, with a value of over R 10 billion – www.securitysa.com/*mine7). There are naturally other stealable products, and the use of violence to attack mining operations has become more of a standard operating procedure than any other method of crime.

Tactical teams and armoured vehicles are now the norm and are often outnumbered and out-gunned by the syndicates – state law enforcement services are, to be polite, inefficient. Therefore, knowing the situation tactical teams are being called to is critical to ensure their safety in hazardous situations, which is where security technology can assist. However, criminals know this and often attack electrical and fibre installations before attacking a specific location to keep their numbers and capabilities secret from surveillance cameras and other security technologies.

Surveillance cameras have become vital in mine security, but trained professionals must support the technology. This training applies not only to tactical response teams, but also to the control room operators who need to provide a situational report to the response personnel. A harmful error some mines bought into for a while was that if you had the latest and greatest IP cameras with clever analytics, you could reduce the number of security personnel onsite. Nash says this was a good selling point, but does not apply in the world of real mining security management.

Another error is to view security as a grudge purchase and only a cost item on the budget.

Security is an investment

Nash says security is an investment. Make the right investment and cover your mine (or any business) effectively by considering all the risks you face and developing a strategic plan. The results will be evident in the bottom line through better control of costs and profits. It is also essential for the security lead to have a seat on the executive committee of smaller companies and on the C-suite of bigger and multi-national companies, with access to the board. The alternative is that non-security executives make ill-informed decisions on security budgets, strategies, and approaches.

Budgets are a reality, and there will never be enough money for all the security requirements one wants to have in place; however, being part of the executive allows for a realistic cost-benefit-risk discussion that deals with the security and business requirements more logically. Leaving it to a finance person alone, or a non-security professional, will not have the best result as different goals drive them.

Moreover, squeezing security budgets in a cost-cutting exercise will see organisations adopting what Nash calls a ‘Frankensteined’ security programme with many blind spots. These often go unnoticed for a long time and grow as you lose small indicators that could suggest criminal activity in a specific area. However, eventually, they will be exploited, and the impact will be considerable.

While he is now officially retired, Nash foresees more volatility in 2024 since it is a hotly contested election year. Security personnel in all areas of the industry will find themselves under increased pressure and will be expected to do more. This is not unique to mining, but the violence and personal risk in this industry are extreme. If mines do not look after their people, the pressure will see more people looking for jobs outside the sector as they lose motivation. This loss of motivation will also impact those still on the job as they plod along and tick boxes in doing their jobs, instead of being engaged and alert.

Sadly, Nash does not see the situation improving over the next five years unless something dramatic happens. As he sees it in the current situation, violence will increase, and the state will be even less able (or willing) to deal with the issues. Economic pressures are likely to result in more budget pressure, which could impact security programmes, resulting in them being poorly designed, poorly funded, and poorly executed.

In conclusion, Nash says that new technologies are fundamental to the risk operations in mines. They will be used for more investigative purposes, picking up signs and indicators rather than simply looking for someone crossing a perimeter line. Additionally, he repeats an earlier statement, noting that guards are still critical to a security plan. However, they need to be better trained to understand the situation they operate in and the rules associated with it. Most importantly, they should not be seen as a body on patrol or at the gate, but must be integrated as a functional team that is a core component of the security programme, with each individual knowing they are an important part of the team.

Nash Lutchman can be contacted at [email protected]


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