Inside Australia’s Biggest Machines: Cat 797 Powertrain Haul Truck

KRYSTLE RICHARDSON

Image credit: Codelco via Foter.com
Gemma Kirby

Gemma Kirby is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance. The petite blonde is a coalmine worker who drives a massive Caterpillar 797 haul truck. These big Cats have one of the hugest payload capacities of any haul truck in the world, capable of carrying up to 400 tons.

To Gemma, they’ve been part of her daily existence for the last five years and operating them comes easier to her than driving a regular car. There have been challenges over the years, but Gemma has had fantastic support from her family, friends and work colleagues.

Early days

“I am a 6th generation coal miner. My father has always worked in the mines. When I was young, we moved around a lot, chasing the mining boom. I’ve lived in nearly every small town in Western Australia. My mum was also one of the first women in the Kalgoorlie Super Pit. But she didn’t last long because she fell pregnant with me!”

Apart from her life as a miner’s kid, Gemma had no experience when she first applied for a job at the mines. To improve her chances of getting behind the wheel of the massive machines, Gemma did a simulator course before putting in her application.

If you can imagine playing a video game in a truck cab in a shipping container, you’ll have a good idea of what Gemma did. The simulator taught her all the switches and how to operate under different dig units like loaders, excavators and shovels. It told her exactly how much she was out by, so she could work on her precision and get totally square.

When Gemma finally went for her interview, she was told they’d actually been looking for experienced applicants. But before she’d gotten 12ks away, they called her back. The interviewers had been so impressed with her passion and determination, they wanted to giver her a go.

Life in the mines

Working in a coal mine isn’t exactly easy. If you’re not on a FIFO setup, it starts with the big drive to get out there. For her first mining gig, Gemma would drive eight hours, by herself, to get out to the site in Western Queensland. She’d then complete an 85 hour week and drive another eight hours home by herself. Her Dad had the kind of fatherly concern you might expect but was happy once he realised she was not only fine but loving it.

There was no mucking around once Gemma got out there. She was thrown straight in and, within two shifts, was behind the wheel herself.

“It’s crazy to think that you’ve got 400 ton of dirt on your back, hauling it up a ramp, on your second shift in. But it’s honestly not that hard. Anyone can operate these trucks. There are dangers but it’s very controlled and there are a lot of rules and regulations around it to keep us safe.”

Gemma reckons its a lot driving a car, only easier. She admits it can be hard to get your head around the visual aspect at first. You’re only really looking out of one window. The rest around the truck are blind. And you can’t see more than 30 meters ahead, except for out of your driver side door.

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While this sounds like you’re driving half blind, Gemma explains the mines are designed for these vehicles and their restrictions. There’s specifications around every aspect of operation from how wide the roads have to be built to the precise revs you need to maintain for the ramps. It’s all very controlled. With everyone following the guidelines, it all just works and the limited visibility isn’t a problem. In fact, it reduces the number of variables you need to consider.

A day in the life of a coalmine operator

Gemma starts her day at 2:30am with a workout. She often finishes her day with a weights session in the evening too. While she does enjoy the gym, Gemma admits she would kind of prefer to be sleeping. But you have to be in shape to do her job. There’s a strict BMI requirement and operators have to be under 120kgs to sit in the seat. Hence Gemma’s hectic workout schedule.

“Because I’m just sitting and driving and eating all day, I have to work out to be able to stay fit enough.”

After her incredibly early start, Gemma heads to the mess for breakfast and to prepare her meals for the day. Then it’s off to a 5:30am meeting where she’s allocated her truck. A typical day’s work would involve four hours in the truck, half an hour off, five hours back behind the wheel, half an hour off, and then another four hours of driving before knock off.

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The unexpected benefits of mining life

Gemma loves working in the mines, particularly because it unexpectedly nurtured a hidden talent of hers. As any truckie or miner will tell you, the work gets pretty monotonous. There’s a lot of sameness over the minutes, hours, days and weeks.

“All you do is go from a dig unit to a dump and back. All day long. I needed a creative outlet to keep my mind busy.”

Gemma’s creative outlet was music. She would sing to herself and write music as she worked.

She’s toured as a support act with country music star, Adam Brand, and has already embarked on her own Australia-wide tour for 2017.

This is another way in which mining has unexpectedly prepared Gemma for a singing career. The extended periods of time she spends away from home for a tour are barely any different to her stints out in the mines. So Gemma, her family and her friends are all prepared.

Gemma incorporates her coal mining experience into her tunes, telling tales from her time in the mines. Her co-workers jokingly dared her to find a way to make mining sexy. The result was a track called “Coal Train” that definitely rises to their challenge.

While she loves operating the big Cats and having that creative space in her cab, Gemma is planning on moving into music full time.

I will miss everybody. The people I work with are family to me because I live half my life with them.”