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Estevan miner enjoyed keeping the big machinery operating

Garry Malaryk spent 30 years working as an oiler on the draglines at the Estevan mines.

ESTEVAN - Garry Malaryk carries fond memories from more than four decades spent working in the coal mines in the Estevan area.

The long-time miner retired last summer following a lengthy mining career that started on Jan. 14, 1980. He had a two or three-year break early in his career when he was laid off and went to work in the southeast oilpatch, but he eagerly returned to mining when the opportunity presented itself.

"I started out there as basically a guy who was a labourer, unloading boxcars of coal to feed … the briquette plant," said Malaryk. "And then I worked my way up into the plant as an assistant operator, and I probably did that for … a good 12 years."

Malaryk shifted into equipment for a year, running a dozer and a grader, and oiling a dragline whenever possible. Finally, he became a dragline oiler in 1994 – a job he held until he retired last year. He worked on every dragline in the local fleet over a 30-year span.

"I retired on the 9020," said Malaryk. "That was the newest machine. It was built in 1999 and it was commissioned in December of 1999 and I retired on that machine."

When he worked on the draglines, he felt like he was his own boss. He had to operate a dragline for three or four hours a shift to relieve the operator, giving him the opportunity to run the biggest units with the mining companies. During his other eight or nine hours at work each day, he checked the machines, made sure everything was operating properly, looked after maintenance, checked the oils and listened to the units to ensure they were running properly.

If he needed to, he returned to the shop and picked up tools and supplies for the machine.

"Back in the day, when the operator went on vacation, they would bump up the oiler to operator it for a full shift," said Malaryk. "And then they would give me the dozer operator or whoever else was trained to do my job."

He also had to climb the boom to check for cracks and make sure the grease lines were hooked up properly. The boom was 350 feet high up a staircase, but he thankfully isn't afraid of heights. On a quiet day, he climbed the boom and enjoyed the views from above.

The climb up the mast was shorter at about 200 feet, but it was a straight incline up what was essentially a ladder.

"It was harder to climb the mast, but it was still a good view up there. And then we had to run a little support equipment around the dragline to move the power cable," said Malaryk.

He thought about becoming an electrician later in his career but opted to stick with the big equipment.

"I loved draglines. I spent three-quarters of my career on the draglines," said Malaryk.

He was 19 years old when he applied to work in coal mining. They brought him in for an interview, and he was hired. When he was laid off, he continued to pay his union dues, so he didn't lose his seniority when asked to return to work. He didn't expect he would be away for two or three years when he was laid off.

"The wages and benefits were, bar none, way better than any other employer," said Malaryk. "The wages were probably … $8 to $10 an hour more going back to the mine, or close to it."

Malaryk took an active role within the United Mine Workers of America Local 7606 union. In 1996, he joined the safety committee and was the co-chair at the end of his career. He really enjoyed the role.

"Safety has come a long ways from when I first started there. When I first started, there was none, or very little [emphasis on] safety, compared to what it is now. And that's anywhere I think you go now. It's just a sign of the times. If you don't run a safe operation, you aren't in business very long," said Malaryk.

At one time, the mine went years without a lost-time accident.

He was also part of the social club, organizing such functions as the fishing derby, the golf tournament and the Christmas party for children of mine workers.

"I always had to find the Santa Claus. It was hard getting Santa Claus sometimes, finding someone to dress up in the suit. Until you found the right one and he loved the job and he wouldn't give it up," Malaryk recalled fondly.

Malaryk also served on the union's grievance and shift-work committees, allowing him to venture out on a lot of road trips.

The local mines' workforce has grown over the years. When he first started, he believes, 200-250 people were working between the two mine sites east of the city. Now he believes there were more than 400 working for Westmoreland Mining Holdings LLC.

His job could be demanding at times, but if everything was running smoothly, there wasn't a lot of manual labour. If something broke down on a dragline bucket, that's when the hardest work began.

In addition to the pay and the benefits, he enjoyed interacting with his co-workers.

"I made a lot of friends while working out there," said Malaryk.

Malaryk said he would recommend a career in the mines to other people, thanks to the opportunities for advancement.

"Once you get your foot in the door, there are always apprentice jobs up for bid where you can apprentice being an electrician, a welder, a heavy-duty mechanic, a millwright or a machinist. All of those jobs come up once in a while."

He's glad he retired when he did, because he has enjoyed life after full-time employment. He has spent a lot of time on the golf course. In the winter, he and his wife travelled to warmer locations. And he doesn't have to worry about missing Estevan Bruins hockey games because of a night shift.

He has remained in touch with the people he worked with, and they still visit on a regular basis.