Inside a brightly-lit building on Burns Road stand two large, rectangular steel boxes that look like shipping containers. Because that’s essentially what they are.

Inside each one is what Doug Burgis jokingly calls a big Ninento machine.

Burgis is the training manager for Northern Safety Network Yukon (NSNY), and the building is the network’s Safety and Mine Training Centre, which opened earlier this year.

And the steel boxes? They house high-tech simulators used to train heavy equipment operators for the Yukon’s mining, construction, highways and other related industries.

One simulator replicates above-ground conditions, while the other lets students experience what it is like to operate underground.

The simulators have wrap-around video screens of about 270 degrees, and are driven by computer programs controlled by the instructor.

“The cab vibrates with the action that you’re doing. The field conditions can change – the slope, the grade, the weather, the time of day,” Burgis boasts.

“The instructor can change it at will, give a flat tire, a brake failure, imminent collision, whatever the scenario. And he can assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the operator, based on speeds, slope, full loads, things like this.”

Each of the South African-made units had a base price of about $750,000, according to NSNY’s executive director Sheila Spergy.

Add in the cost of replaceable cab modules for different vehicles, such as rock trucks, graders and excavators, and the two simulators – which can operate in the training centre or in other locations – represent and investment of nearly $3 million.

More significantly, they represent a big step forward in NSSNY’s development, in sync with the growth of the territory’s mining industry.

“As the momentum in mining is gathering, we’re gathering momentum too,” Spergy says.

She cites statistics from the Mining Industry Human Resource Council projecting that the demand for heavy equipment operators and truck drivers in the Yukon will double in the next eight years.

The 12-week heavy equipment operator’s course, which started two years ago, before the training centre opened, fills a 17-year void in the territory. So far, there have been four intakes of 12 students each.

The simulators are only part of the equation. The course also includes classroom instruction and hands-on experience operating six different pieces of heavy equipment at a pit site on Copper Road.

Leasing that equipment alone costs another $40,000 per month, Spergy says.

NSNY originally began as a vehicle for delivering Certification of Recognition (COR) programs on behalf of the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board (WCHSB).

COR is the nationally-recognized standard for workplace health and safety programs.

While businesses of all sizes and descriptions are encouraged to participate at the level appropriate to the business size, and to develop safety programs for their own businesses, in some cases, COR certification is mandatory.

Companies wanting to do business with the Yukon Government, the City of Whitehorse, or Yukon Energy, for example, must have COR certification, and maintain audited workplace safety programs.

Safety is at the heart of everything NSNY does – from offering short courses in the safe operation of scissor-lifts and “zoom booms”, or how to work safely in confined spaces, to fall protection and the proper use of fall restraint equipment such as lanyards, ropes and harnesses.

As Spergy puts it, it’s all about “building a culture of safety, one person at a time, one business at a time, leading by example.”

Spergy came to the territory about five years ago with a human resources and financial background.

She soon became the human resources manager for Minto Explorations and the company’s on-site liaison person with the Selkirk First Nation. From there she went on to develop training programs for the First Nation, with a focus on youth.

After a stint of doing project management related to safety and mine training, she joined NSNY about a year ago.

“Being at the mine site really hammered it home,” she says.

That experience, she says, embedded an awareness of safety into her whole philosophy.

“I know it reduces WCB rates and all of those things, and has a ripple effect, but the bottom line is we want to keep people safe and going home to their kids. And we want kids going home to their parents,” Spergy stresses.

“If we can applaud someone going home safely, then we’ve started to change the culture,” she says in a phone interview from a mining-related conference in Rankin Inlet.

In a separate interview, Burgis uses similar rhetoric. Sometimes older workers in particular may not see the merit of taking safety training, he says, but it is possible to change habits and attitudes.

“You have to be honest, and fair, and if you’ve got some street credentials working in an industry, that helps too,” he says.

“After you talk about it for awhile, they see the merit of going home with all your fingers and toes to your family.”

Burgis certainly has those street credentials. He has been involved in risk management since the mid-1980, when he was with the Canadian army. He later spent eight years as a “smoke jumper” with the territory’s wildfire management services.

He recalls incidents where he had to evacuate sections of a line to keep firefighters safe.

“And it’s not a good feeling until you know that all the noses are accounted for” he says.

“It’s a heavy responsibility until you get to that point, and I decided I didn’t really want to have that feeling anymore, so I do everything I can to make sure people are first and everybody goes home.”

Considerations of productivity shouldn’t trump safety, he suggests.

“A safe worker is a productive worker.”

For example, a worker who may be valued because he “moves a lot of lumber” may be also be cutting corners to do it.

“Sooner or later, something happens, and all that supposed productivity is lost,” he says.

“The safe operator is going to be getting better and more efficient at doing it properly over time, and reducing costs. He doesn’t bump into something, or break the corner of a building with a forklift, or things like that, because he’s operating more safely.”

NSNY’s role may be soon expanding into other areas. It is currently in discussions with WCSHB about developing a mine rescue program – something the territory hasn’t had since the early 1990s.

And with the heavy equipment operation soon to become an interprovincial “red seal” trade, Spergy says, the territory’s Advanced Education branch is encouraging NSNY to move toward trade school status.

In a growing economy with a strong mining sector, with access to equipment and a place for students to get hands-on experience, and with a new Mine and Safety Training Centre, the organization seems to be headed in the right direction.

Not to mention those fancy new South African simulators.

As Spergy says, with mining gaining momentum, NSNY is also gaining momentum.