MINING HEALTH SAFETY: What everyone needs to know and practice

1The mining industry has a reputation for being a risky business, with health risks that are varied and often quite serious, and it is important for miners to protect themselves accordingly.

Nevertheless, mining doesn't have to be unsafe. With the introduction of strict safety legislation and protocol, as well as advances in safety equipment, the industry has seen its fatality rate drop over time. Although the goal of zero harm has not yet been achieved, it remains the standard that mining companies continue to strive towards.

“Understanding and being aware of your environment is the first step to preventing illness or injury in the workplace,” reveals mining medicine researcher Megan Clark, who outlines the following 7 common health risks to watch out for in the mining industry.

1. Coal dust

Dust inhalation or coal dust is one of the most common concerns for miners. “The ongoing inhalation of coal dust can cause what is colloquially known as 'miner's lung' or 'black lung'. Miner's lung is a form of the occupational lung disease group pneumoconiosis. It varies in severity, but symptoms include shortness of breath and scarring of lung tissue, which can cause ongoing respiratory issues,” says Clark.

Even though measures to prevent black lung have been legally enforced for many years now, new cases still occur among coal miners. Mining companies need to develop a dust control plan, and supervisors should ensure that dust control systems are working properly for every production shift. Mine workers should be trained on the hazards of over-exposure to coal mine dust. Respiratory protection should be used when dust control protection is being installed, maintained or repaired. Medical screening and surveillance is also essential.

2. Noise

Mines are noisy places, with the constant of drilling and heavy machinery, and the potential for hearing damage is quite serious. “It can be easy for you to mentally get used to loud noises, but that doesn't mean that damage isn't still being done. Many people don't notice the damage to their hearing until long after they were first exposed to the noisy environment, as most damage occurs very slowly. Over-exposure to excessive noise can result in tinnitus (ringing in the ears), sleep disturbances, concentration problems and even permanent hearing loss,” Clark explains.

To protect workers against noise, mining companies should evaluate working conditions and noise exposure through risk assessments. Avoiding and reducing exposure can be achieved by appling engineering controls at the noise source or along the noise path to reduce exposures, such as vibration dampeners or absorptive panels. Regular maintenance of machines is also essential to reducing noise. Employer must ensure proper use of personal hearing protection amongst noise-exposed employees, while providing necessary health and safety training and maintaining up-to-date health surveillance records.

3. Whole body vibration

Whole body vibration (WBV) is a slow forming physical hazard that occurs in mining workers and other occupations that work with heavy machinery. “In the mining environment, WBV can be caused either by spending a lot of time sitting on machinery, which is most of the time in mining extraction, or by standing, such as working on jumbo operators. Some forms of vibration are ok, but they become dangerous when they involve uneven surfaces, vehicle activity such as ripping versus pushing material in a bulldozer, and engine vibrations. Symptoms of WBV include musculoskeletal disorders, reproductive damage in females, vision impairment, digestive problems and cardiovascular changes,” Clark outlines.

Again, reducing exposure also reduces the health risks and should be the first step that mining companies take. This might include filling in potholes on unmade roads, minimising the transport of goods or materials, or replacing manned with unmanned machines such as remotely controlled conveyors. Where risks cannot be avoided, supervisors should reduce the time for which the employee uses the machine each day. Instruction and training are critical, and symptoms of back pain in employees should be closely monitored.

4. UV Exposure

For open-pit miners, understanding the risk of over-exposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation in sunlight is essential. “Over exposure of ultraviolet rays can put you at risk of skin cancer, of which Australia has the highest rate in the world. Not only can UV rays cause melanomas to form, but they can cause serious damage to your eyes if you are not wearing protective eye wear. In the short-term, overexposure to the sun can cause dehydration, headaches and nausea. Mine workers often spend whole days out in the baking hot sun, so are naturally at a very high risk of developing cancer and eye problems if they are not adequately protected,” Clark explains.

Employers should conduct a risk assessment on outdoor work scheduled to assist in developing appropriate sun protection measures. The most effective way of reducing UV exposure is to use a combination of protection methods, including re-organising work to avoid the UV peak of the day, providing natural or artificial shade, providing appropriate protective clothing, and applying sunscreen. It is also important that employers train employees to raise awareness of the risks associated with exposure to UV and the sun protection measures required. Employers can provide skin cancer checks as part of regular workplace medical examinations and in pre-employment medical checks.

5. Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) refer to any problems affecting your bones, muscles, blood vessels and nerves. “Mine workers are exposed to a variety of potential health risks that fall under this broad category. While musculoskeletal damage can occur due to a trip, fall or heavy lift, the more serious ones occur slowly over time. This could be due to ongoing heavy lifting or repetitive strains,” says Clark.

Preventing MSDs needs to be a key part of every workplace health and safety program. In safe and healthy workplaces, employers should identify and assess job-related MSD hazards and put in place controls to reduce workers' exposure to MSD hazards. Furthermore, workers should be advised and trained about MSD hazards in their job and workplace and should be encouraged to participate in health and safety programs through early reporting of MSD symptoms or concerns to their supervisors.  Employers should follow up to ensure preventative measures are working.

6. Thermal stress

A common health risk that miners face is thermal – or heat – stress. “Mining environments are often very hot and humid, particularly those in outback Australia, which over time can cause thermal stress in workers. Overexposure to heat and humidity can cause the body to become fatigued and distressed. This can result in heat stroke or more serious ongoing health problems,” Clark reveals.

Where there is a possibility of heat stress occurring, companies need to carry out a risk assessment that considers the work rate, working climate and worker clothing and respiratory protective equipment. Where possible, control the temperature using engineering solutions, provide mechanical aids where possible to reduce the work rate, and regulate the length of exposure to hot environments. Furthermore, personal protective equipment should be provided, such as specialised protective clothing that incorporates personal cooling systems or breathable fabrics. Furthermore, companies should provide training for workers, especially new and young employees, and monitor the health of workers at risk.

7. Chemical hazards

3Mine workers are often exposed to harmful chemicals. “As an example, the most common group of chemicals that cause concern in a coal mining environment are polymeric chemicals. Regardless of the chemicals you work in close proximity to, appropriate safety wear and precautions need to be taken to minimise your body's exposure to them. Risks include chemical burns, respiratory problems and poisoning,” Clark outlines.

Each chemical has a unique set of hazards and needs to be handled properly to ensure worker safety, so employers need to conduct risk assessments to establish best practices. A standard operating procedure (SOP) that addresses the use of correct personal protective equipment, safe handling, safe use, and proper disposal should be established. Ventilation is also an important factor in minimizing exposure, as well as general housekeeping and cleanliness. Thorough training and drills should be conducted regarding the company's spill response plans and chemical hygiene plans.

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