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Penny Schwegel: Fort Knox Gold Miner

Operating Alaska’s largest hydraulic excavator


Mining is a big part of Alaska’s history. The miner with a pick axe and shovel is still an iconic image often adorning logos and brochures – despite the fact the labor of the majority of people working in modern-day mining is highly mechanized. Today’s miner also wields a shovel, but it is more often a giant vehicle with computerized controls. Penny Schwegel, one of the 533 employees at Fort Knox Gold Mine northeast of Fairbanks, operates the largest hydraulic excavator in Alaska. She is one of the many women who have found their place in mining over the last 20 to 30 years, according to Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association. Only a few others operate the big shovels, however.

As a utility operator, Schwegel’s tools are mechanized vehicles. She currently drives a Hitachi 5500, a 1.1 million-pound-behemoth, moving thousands of tons of rock and dirt scoop after scoop into a continuing lineup of trucks that transport the material for processing. Like those early day miners who worked long, hard days to make the most of summer’s extra hours of daylight, Schwegel and her colleagues work long hours too, and not just in the summer. Fort Knox operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day to make the most of the low-grade ore at the mine, says Lorna Shaw, spokesperson for Kinross Gold Company, the Canadian firm that owns Fort Knox.

Just Another Day

Round-the-clock rotations are at least 12.5 hours long.

“My typical day begins at 4:30, either in the morning or afternoon depending upon which shift I am working,” says Schwegel, whose husband, Dave, also works at the mine. With nearly 16 years at Fort Knox, both Schwegels have worked in a variety of jobs. She had experience as a truck driver at a family owned mine, started driving trucks at Fort Knox and literally worked her way up to the heavy equipment she now operates or directs as a dispatcher.

It’s a 25-mile commute from their homestead to the mine where “line out” begins at 6:45 a.m. That’s when the “shifter” or shift supervisor assigns each operator to equipment.

“It is an opportunity for the operators to share with their relief what is going on with the equipment and any concerns they have about conditions at the mine face,” Schwegel says.

“During line out, the shifter and others will remind one another about safety measures such as using blinkers, wearing vests and who gets the right-of-way in the mine.”

This time is one of the few when an operator has the chance to talk with coworkers. Once in their trucks and shovels, each operator must remain alert and ever-conscious of safety. There’s no time for idle chatter about kids or what’s going on in the world outside the mine.

“These are massive machines. One misstep and I could hurt someone on the ground, so I must be aware of my surroundings and remember the safety practices such as honking and waiting a few seconds before I move the shovel,” she says.

Starting the Day

By 7 a.m. she and the other operators are in a van headed to the current dig face where the shovel will be operated. Schwegel will walk around examining the area and her equipment. She will assess the type of material to be excavated and climb the 28 feet up to the 8-by-10-foot cab that will be her work station for the entire day.

While much of the work is about controlling the highly specialized bucket, her skill is a combination of reading the texture of the dirt to be excavated and her deft touch at manipulating the equipment. The gold at Fort Knox is hosted in granite, probably from the late Cretaceous period and is a diverse mix of textures.

“If we have ‘sugar’ material, the digging will be easy,” she says. “If it is hard, I may have to chip away at the surface. And if the material is soft, I have to be careful that the shovel isn’t buried, causing me to use more power to release it. Sometimes the consistency of the face will change as we dig and the crew may have to re-blast it.”

When there is enough material to begin digging at once, Schwegel will work until lunch, a brown-bag affair right there in her cab. The routine continues for another four hours or so until break time – 10 minutes to walk around, stretch and use the restroom. Then the operators finish up the day’s mining until 6:30 p.m. when they head back to the offices to brief the next crew.

The work seems as if it could be tedious, but Schwegel says each day is different – conditions at the dig face differ and the shift boss varies the equipment and assignments. She has some techniques to keep herself alert, such as listening to the radio – country and western music her favorite tunes.

“When I work the night shift, I may set goals for moving from one point on the mine face to another specific point that keeps me concentrating, “she says.

Shifters also vary the placement of equipment and can move drivers around. If anyone feels he or she is tiring and needs a break, the operator calls upon the shifter to lend a hand or bring in a replacement. If on a particular day, Schwegel is working as a shifter, she will put in a 14-hour day, overseeing about 50 drivers and operators. She will continually move around in a pickup truck observing the operations, assuring operators are alert and anticipating any problems. As a dispatcher she will oversee the operation, choreographing movements and coordinating with the shift supervisor.

The routine varies on those days when new material must be blasted from the mine face. Schwegel works as part of the team that prepares the floor of the mine for the drillers and blasters. With a dozer, she will flatten the area and create a protective berm to surround the blast area. After the blast, she may walk around the dig face, eyeballing it to determine what other steps are necessary and examining the texture of the new material.

Working Rotation

By the end of the day, the crew has wrestled thousands of tons of dirt and rock from the earth. Schwegel is ready for the last drive back to Gold Stream Valley where she can spend some time unwinding with her horses and dogs.

As with other round-the-clock operations, crews at Fort Knox work a nontraditional rotation schedule. The Schwegels and the other drivers and operators work four 12.5-hour shifts in a row and have seven days off. That is followed by four night shifts with three days off. Next they work a three-day rotation with one day off and then three night shifts followed by three days off. All this amounts to 14 work days each month, but the total hours range from 175 to 190, depending upon any extra duties.

It takes some getting used to, but with this rotation, Schwegel says she is more rested than if she were to work a swing shift. Also, she can have extended time to train her five horses and serve as president of the Northern Horseman’s Association. However, there are times when she wishes she did not have to work any nights or that she and her husband had the same schedule more often. He usually works back-to-back shifts with her and turns his hand to boat building while away from the mine.

“We are a busy family with a homestead and hobbies,” she says.

Originally drawn to mining by the money, Schwegel says she likes the challenge of operating the big rigs and the camaraderie that goes with the intensity. “We spend so much time there, the mine is like a second home and people become like family.”

She was recently recognized for her work ethic with a Kinross “Putting People First” award.

Dan Snodgrass, vice president and general manager of Kinross Fort Knox, says, “Penny’s a talented operator and we’re pleased to recognize her for her contributions to the mine. She is a great example of one of the Kinross core values: a high performance culture. Penny lives this value and demonstrates it on the job daily.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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