Creating a new kind of mining conference in Nevada—collaboration and trust are critical

February 6, 2019 Bryan Ulrich

The most recent Elko Roundtable featured an unbridled conversation about risk and design in the mining industry


In 2007, I decided to organize an informal get-together for mining professionals. Elko, a small town in Nevada and a central hub for gold mining in the United States, was a logical location. The first-ever all-day, invitation-only Elko Roundtable promised an open exchange of ideas to all who attended. I wanted this meeting to be different. Compared to traditional conferences and symposia, the emphasis was on unbridled conversation. Colleagues and clients were intrigued from the start.

Now in its 12th year, the Elko Roundtable has become a place to work through some of the most pressing issues in the mining industry in a collaborative open-environment. We’ve created this environment by establishing aspects that are different from other industry gatherings. First, we create an atmosphere of trust. We do this by ensuring what is discussed is private and does not leave the room. Trust must be established before people are willing to openly work through difficult topics. Second, when facilitating a seminar, I take care to ask all attendees questions. By engaging the room, we hear from multiple perspectives and have a more thoughtful conversation. Lastly, each attendee is given the opportunity to edit meeting proceedings. Since we established that our conversations are private, it is essential that anything produced from our meetings is reviewed and approved by each attendee.

Over the years, we’ve come together to discuss a variety of complex topics at the Elko Roundtable, from sustainability in mining to innovation in mine waste practices. The goal has always been to create an open environment to discuss the current practices, challenges, and accomplishments associated with the day’s chosen topic. Twelve years in, I am proud to report we are leading the conversation on some of the industry’s most pressing issues. 



Talking risk and mining in Elko

At the most recent Elko Roundtable we discussed “Risk-based Geotechnical Design in the Mining Industry.” It’s a timely subject, particularly given the notable facilities failures in the last several years. The collapse at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia shocked Canadians who were leading the world in developing best practices for mine operations. The 2015 failure of a dam at the Samarco iron ore mine in Brazil was even more of a wake-up call for the engineering world. These failures pointed to a central fact: Traditional approaches to mine safety and integrity need to be supplemented by more innovative methods to succeed.

The risk-based or rather “risk-informed design” approach is such a solution. This kind of _q_tweetable:Traditional approaches to mine safety and integrity need to be supplemented by more innovative methods._q_structured process enables professionals from a variety of disciplines to examine and rank potential hazards and their consequences, which can often be characterized by a monetary value. Most of the time, engineers calculate “factors of safety” for their designs. A factor of safety tells you how many times safer a design is than is really needed to serve its purpose. For example, an elevator may indicate a maximum load of 1,000 pounds. That doesn’t include the factor of safety. If the factor of safety is 2, then the actual design load is 2,000 pounds that can be carried safely. 

That design doesn’t necessarily incorporate risk. What if all those people in the elevator are jumping? Or if there is an earthquake? In a risk-informed design, the designers would use a method to quantify hazards and consequences, the product of which is risk. You develop a list of things that may go wrong. Then quantify the risks. Then once you know the risks, you can alter the design, where possible, to reduce risks. 

The most recent roundtable brought no shortage of terrific insights. One intriguing theme was how much corporate risk tolerance has changed over time. We discussed the recent trend in the “post-disaster” mining industry that is leading companies to make greater investments in programs that lower risk.


Sharing our learnings after Elko

Lively repartee and helpful tangential departures are the norm at the Elko Roundtable. Since there is considerable overlap between the roundtable’s subtopics, the conversations frequently wander from theme to theme and back again. I owe thanks to the members of the roundtable for providing valuable participation and to the support of my Stantec colleagues in running this event.

In keeping with the spirit of an open conversation, our goal is to create minutes of the meeting where specific quotes are not attributed to their author but rather the proceedings are presented in a stripped-down version. 

The Elko Roundtable is a once-a-year event, but the lessons learned are something the industry should practice every day. We must create a place to have tough conversations about the most pressing issues. We must push ourselves to deliver the best for company, our clients, and, most importantly, our communities. 

About the Author

Bryan Ulrich

Bryan Ulrich is a leader in geotechnical design for the mining industry, with more than 30 years of experience. He’s experienced in leading design teams and performing independent reviews of mine waste and heap leach facilities and is particularly skilled at building relationships with key industry contacts.

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