Occupational diseases

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There are many 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 wellbeing.

Globally, across all industries, there are an estimated 2.78 million deaths from occupational injury and diseases annually. Of these deaths, 2.4 million (86.3 per cent) are thought to be from occupational disease.

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 take place can potentially impact health in the following ways:

Impacts caused by hazardous substances

Exposure to some of the major hazardous substances encountered in the mining and metals sector can have a serious impact on health in various ways:

Acute and chronic health effects

It is important to consider the timeframe over which health effects manifest themselves.

Acute health effects are more likely to be immediately obvious to the individual and it is 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.

Chronic health effects can develop over a longer period of exposure. 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 is a feature of many occupationally acquired diseases, where the symptoms of a condition occur many years after exposure to the hazard. For example, the development of mesothelioma decades after initial asbestos exposure. Other lung cancers and pneumoconiosis (such as silicosis and coal worker’s pneumoconiosis) can occur decades after exposure has ceased.

External and contextual factors

As with all employment sectors, the mining and metals sector will occasionally encounter issues attributable to, contributed to, or compounded by external factors such as:

Mining and metals companies need to be aware of the entire range of 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:

  1. Developing a workplace culture which recognises that all occupation-related illnesses are preventable.
  2. Making a consistent and sustained effort to ensure that there are no repeat occurrences of occupational diseases in any workplace setting.
  3. 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.