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Occupational diseases

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:

  • 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 have a serious impact on health in various ways:

  • Skin disorders (eg burns, contact dermatitis and cancer) from contact with a wide range of chemicals including acids, alkalis, solvents, fuels, lubricants and resins. Allergic contact dermatitis from contact with 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 toxic gases and vapours, including 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). For example, 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 sulphide and acid mists.
  • Damage to internal organ systems such as the lungs, kidneys, liver, bone marrow and brain from the absorption of chemicals, minerals and metals through the skin, respiratory and digestive tracts.

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:

  • Employment trends, eg long, irregular shift patterns, or an aging workforce, which could result in chronic fatigue, workplace stress and mental health issues.
  • Lifestyle choices, eg lack of exercise or a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and substance abuse.
  • The spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

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.

Real-time particulate monitoring

To support industry in working towards achieving zero fatalities ICMM has published a research paper on considerations for the adoption of real-time particulate monitoring. This document encourages collaboration and innovation to accelerate the industry towards a future of RTPM, recognising that it is a proactive and effective tool for preventing hazardous airborne particulate exposures, mitigating associated risks, and validating controls.