There are a large number of hazards – linked to both the nature of the physical environment and the effects of hazardous substances – in the mining and metals sector that pose a potential risk to health and well-being. Protecting the occupational health of workers is an integral part of being a responsible mining and metals company. ICMM and its members share a vision of zero fatalities.
Impacts caused by the physical environment
The physical environment where exploration, mining, ore extraction and processing takes place can potentially cause health impacts in the following ways:
- physical injury from accidents involving moving machinery, movement of mining products and from working with explosives and detonating devices
- musculoskeletal disorders associated with various work activities eg where manual handling is a feature or repetitive motion is required and whole-body vibration
- noise-induced hearing loss associated with occupationally related excessive noise exposure
- hand-arm vibration syndrome and other musculoskeletal consequences from hand-arm transmitted vibration
- skin cancer from working outdoors in direct sunlight
- Effects from both ionising and non-ionising radiation, eg cataracts
- heat exhaustion, hypothermia and various other health effects from exposure to extremes of temperature.
Impacts caused by hazardous substances
Exposure to some of the major hazardous substances encountered in the mining and metals sector can also result in a number of important health impacts:
- skin disorders (burns, contact dermatitis, cancer) from contact with a wide range of chemicals including acids, alkalis, solvents, fuels, lubricants and resins
- allergic contact dermatitis from epoxy resins used in adhesives and the salts of some metals including nickel and chromium (eg cement)
- intoxication through to asphyxiation and death can result from the inhalation of some gases and vapours, including the toxic gases hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide
- acute pneumonia may result from exposure to blasting fumes
- damage to the respiratory tract from exposure to airborne chemicals (dusts, gases and aerosols) eg silicosis, coal worker's pneumoconiosis and asbestosis arising from exposure to crystalline silica, coal dust and asbestos respectively, lung cancer and mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos, and nasal sinus cancer from exposure to nickel subsulphide and acid mists
- damage to internal organ systems such as the lung, kidney, liver, bone marrow and brain from the absorption of chemicals and metals through the skin, respiratory and digestive tracts.
Another factor to consider is the timeframe over which the health effects manifest themselves.
Acute and chronic health effects
Acute health effects are those that are more likely to be immediately obvious to the individual and which are often possible to attribute cause and effect. Acute health effects usually appear within hours of exposure; for example, contact with an irritant vapour may lead to watering eyes, sneezing, coughing, irritation and, in extreme cases, respiratory distress after exposure to irritant agents.
Chronic health effects are ones that can develop over a longer period of exposure. On occasion, these will be conditions where the severity of the symptoms or disease or the risk of harm is related to the accumulative exposure to the hazard over a period of months or years. Chronic health effects usually occur after repeated exposure over days, weeks and months, and examples of such conditions include noise-induced hearing loss and hand arm vibration syndrome (see above).
The factor of time
Latency, often greatly extended over time, is a feature of many occupationally acquired diseases where the development of the signs and symptoms of the condition occur many years after the exposure is implicated as the cause. Examples include the development of mesothelioma decades after initial asbestos exposure, and other lung cancers and pneumoconiosis such as silicosis, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, asbestosis, which can occur decades after exposure has ceased.
External and contextual factors
The mining and metals sector, as with all employment sectors, will also on occasion encounter issues attributable to, contributed to, or compounded by, external factors such as:
- employment trends - for example long, irregular shift patterns, or an aging workforce, which could result in chronic fatigue, workplace stress and mental health issues
- lifestyle choices - for example, lack of exercise or a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and substance abuse
- the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Companies need to be aware of the entire range of these risks and actively manage the impacts their activities have on their workforce, targeting a vision of zero occupation-related fatalities.
This vision covers three key aspects:
- Developing a workplace culture in a mining or metals company which recognises how all occupation-related illnesses are preventable
- Making a consistent and sustained effort to ensure that there are no repeat occurrences of occupational diseases in any workplace setting
- Setting and implementing a simple, consistent and non-negotiable set of health and safety standards across the whole organisation with an aim of preventing all occupation-related illnesses.
ICMM has developed guidance and reports on many of these issues, and will continue to update and expand all our guidance in this critical area. Please click on the links below to find out more: