Dan Cummings got the tragic news in the middle of the night.
His co-worker at a mining company in Arizona had died on the nightshift. He’d been transporting a backhoe on a semi flatbed trailer when the semi popped out of gear on a steep decline, which got him going too fast and made him lose control.
It was 2001 and Cummings, then a safety and health adviser for Phelps Dodge, was five years out of college. That’s when the importance of his job really hit home.
“When you get that kind of call, you see the impact your job can have,” he said. “When something does go wrong, how terrible it can be. I knew the person. He left behind a devastated wife and kids. My passion for safety grew rather quickly.”
Today, working as an industrial hygienist for Rio Tinto Copper, the 41-year-old Grantsville man’s passion for safety spans the globe. His job has taken him to places like Peru, Mongolia and South Africa.
“When people ask me what I do, I joke around and say, ‘I teach miners how to brush their teeth,’” he said. In reality, he safeguards employees from hazardous situations like loud noises, radiation and contaminants in the air.
One may wonder how a farm boy from Fillmore ended up globetrotting for one of the largest mining companies in the world. As an engineering undergrad at Utah State University, Cummings said he got tired of homework on Friday nights, so he decided to switch to pre-med.
“I didn’t have that burning desire [to pursue medicine],” he said. “But all my pre-med courses prepared me for this field.”
In 1996 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public health. After graduation, he tried to get work in an Indonesian mine, but ended up working as what he calls a glorified garbage man instead, tearing down 900 meth labs all over Utah for three years.
“It was a fun job, I loved it,” he said.
But he had just gotten engaged, so he decided to get a job that didn’t require as much travel, which is how he ended up working for the Arizona mine. In 2006, his family moved to Grantsville when Cummings got a job at Kennecott. Five years into his job, in 2011, he got promoted to what he does now, which is more to his liking.
“I’m more of a field, get in your steel-toe boots and get your hands dirty kind of a guy,” he said.
On six trips to Peru last year, Cummings trained employees in air monitoring, set up an on-site clinic, assessed hazards and performed a route assessment.
He took his first trip to Peru in January 2011, when it was summer there.
“It was nice weather and not really humid,” he said. “Where we were, we’re not too far from the Amazon basin. The temperatures don’t fluctuate too much.
The average was 72 degrees. The nights cooled down to 65. To get to the mine, we take a bumpy dirt road. It takes 10 hours to get there. It’s extremely narrow, with some drop-offs as steep as 75 degrees. If the driver gets drowsy and veers off the road, there’s a 100 percent chance for fatalities.”
Cummings’ safety recommendations included changing the drivers’ start time from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. and teaching them how to maintain a balanced, low-sugar diet. The drivers, who would stay at a local hotel the night before, were required to report in by 8 p.m. and sleep in rooms that had no TVs.
Employees also learned how to operate equipment safely. “We hire the local people who are anxious to jump right in,” Cummings said. “They grab a chisel and hammer, and rock chips have flown. We tell them it’s OK to step back, look the job over and identify the hazards.”
Although mining camp conditions were rough, Cummings said he was extremely impressed with how modern the area was, although he wasn’t a fan of the roadways.
“There’s no way I could drive in the city,” he said. “There were no driving rules whatsoever. You make a left hand turn, stick your nose out there, honk your horn and shoot across.”
Overall, he felt safe in Peru. “As a company, we have policies for travel,” he said. “We only stay in safe and secure areas. We’re cautioned to not go out late.”
Still, there have been some exciting moments.
“We were out inspecting the different drill rigs in the area,” he said. “There was a group of voluntary law enforcement. They had guns in their hands. Fortunately, the driver knew them very well. [The group] said they were just out patrolling the area.”
In September, Cummings traveled to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.
“We developed health programs. Based on other mines, we recommended equipment and ventilation systems, and what to expect main exposures to be,” he said.
His first impression of the Asian country was that the mentality is that Genghis Khan can do no wrong because he’s their national hero. He flew into the Genghis Khan airport, stayed at the Genghis Khan Hotel and saw Genghis Khan statues and monuments. Cummings said Mongolia was an interesting mix of modern and traditional.
“In this developed country of roughly three million people, with all these skyscrapers going up, there are still people in gers [the Mongolian version of the yurt, or a big round tent],” he said.
Mongolians also don’t use change.
“They just use paper money. When I got back [to Grantsville] I tried to exchange a 50 Mongolian bill at Soelberg’s,” he said. “They wouldn’t do it.”
He’s headed to South Africa next. He’s looking forward to it, even though the Atlanta to Johannesburg leg of the flight alone will take 17 hours. Once in South Africa, he’ll be mentoring the local industrial hygiene staff as well as recommending ways to improve the miners’ conditions, all while watching out for elephants.
“Elephants push up against the trees and knock them over onto the mine buildings,” he said. “This mine is next to Kruger National Park. Being that close, they have a lot of wildlife. Trying to put up a chain link fence is not going to stop an elephant. My co-worker that just got back [from South Africa] saw more wildlife — elephants, warthogs, gorillas, rhinos, lions and lots of snakes — at the mine than going through the [national] park.”
Cummings said his job and the travel opportunities have been fun, though he acknowledges it’s hard for his wife, Robyn, and their four kids, so they Skype a lot.
In 2008, Cummings, who had a hereditary kidney disease, received a kidney transplant, which he and his wife credit for his ability to do what he’s been able to do so far in his career.
“There’s not a lot of people who do what I do,” he said. “It’s a unique field. Companies are recognizing it’s important to protect their human assets. At the end of the day, employees can enjoy quality of life with their family, and when they retire, they’re healthy.”