Mining the depths of safety

Published: 06th Aug 2012

Mining is an ancient occupation, long recognised as being arduous and liable to hold the potential for injury and disease.

The lifecycle of mining consists of exploration, mine development, mine operation, decommissioning and land rehabilitation.

Mining is a multi-disciplinary industry, drawing on several professions and trades. To ensure precision in clinical and epidemiological work, it is important to enquire about the details of tasks, as the term ‘miner’ is relatively non-specific.

Mining is traditionally classified as metalliferous or coal, and as surface or underground.

Mining can also be classified according to the commodity being mined.

What is a mine?

Here are some basic definitions, phrases and abbreviations some readers may find helpful.

A mine is generally any surface or underground location involved in the extraction, preparation, or processing of coal or other minerals.

A miner is any person working in a mine, including contractors, construction or demolition workers, and truck drivers who are regularly exposed to mine hazards. Please note that Supervisors who may not normally perform actual physical mining activities, but who work in a mine, are also called miners. A ‘Representative of miners’ is a person who has been selected by two or more miners at a mine to represent them in safety and health matters under the Act at their mine. In this article I will refer to:

• The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 as the Mine Act, or the Act

• The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 as the MINER Act

• Title 30, Code of Federal Regulations as 30 CFR

Health hazards of mining

Mining is inherently dangerous both in terms of potential accidents and ill health. Some of the health hazards are common to mining in general, while others are related specifically to the nature of the material being mined. It’s also true that the miner is sometimes at less risk than those who refine and use the product.

Physical hazards

Noise is ubiquitous in mining. It is generated by powerful machines, fans, blasting and transportation of the ore. The underground mine usually has limited space and thus creates a reverberant field. Noise exposure is greater than if the same sources were in a more open environment. Exposure to noise can be reduced by using conventional means of noise control on mining machinery. Transmissions can be quieted, engines can be muffled better, and hydraulic machinery can be quieted as well. Chutes can be insulated or lined with sound-absorbing materials. Hearing protectors combined with regular audiometric testing are often necessary to preserve miners’ hearing. Ionising radiation is another hazard in the mining industry. Radon can be liberated from stone while it is loosened by blasting, but it may also enter a mine through underground streams. It is a gas and therefore it is airborne. Radon and its decay products emit ionising radiation, some of which has enough energy to produce cancer cells in the lung. As a result, death rates from lung cancer among uranium miners are elevated. For miners who smoke, the death rate is very much higher. Heat is a hazard for both underground and surface miners. In underground mines, the principal source of heat is from the rock itself. The temperature of the rock goes up about 1° C for every 100 m in depth.

Other sources of heat stress include the amount of physical activity workers are doing, the amount of air circulated, the ambient air temperature and humidity and the heat generated by mining equipment, principally diesel powered equipment. Very deep mines (deeper than 1,000 m) can pose significant heat problems, with the temperature of mine ribs about 40° C. For surface workers, physical activity, the proximity to hot engines, air temperature, humidity and sunlight are the principal sources of heat. Reduction of heat stress can be accomplished by cooling high temperature machinery, limiting physical activity and providing adequate amounts of potable water, shelter from the sun and adequate ventilation. For surface machinery, air-conditioned cabs can protect the equipment operator. At deep mines in South Africa, for example, underground air-conditioning units are used to provide some relief, and first aid supplies are available to deal with heat stress. Many mines operate at high altitudes, e.g. greater than 4,600 m, and because of this, miners may experience altitude sickness. This can be aggravated if they travel back and forth between a mine at a high altitude and a more normal atmospheric pressure.

Chemical hazards

Crystalline silica has long been a serious hazard in mining, with the risk of silicosis at its worst during dry drilling late in the nineteenth century. Silicosis has been subject of considerable investigation. Axial water-fed rock drills, wet techniques, ventilation, enclosed cabins and respiratory protection have largely controlled silicosis in developed nations. Silicosis remains a problem in developing nations, however, and silicon-tuberculosis is widespread in Africa, where the high prevalence of HIV infection among miners increases the risk. Prolonged exposure to crystalline silica can also cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There is some evidence for accelerated silicosis in rheumatoid arthritis and of renal disease following prolonged silica exposure. There is also now good evidence that prolonged exposure to crystalline silica increases the risk of lung cancer. Coal dust has also been a serious hazard in mining, causing coal workers’ pneumoconiosis or ‘black lung’ and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The risks have now been largely controlled in developed nations by dust suppression, ventilation and respiratory protection. Vigilance, however, is required to maintain effective control. Although largely historic in the developed world, the mining and milling of asbestos has caused a legacy of asbestos-related diseases, which continue to occur today. Diesel particulate exposures occur in underground mines because of diesel powered mobile equipment, used primarily for drilling and haulage. There is an excess risk of lung cancer. Control measures include the use of low sculpture diesel fuel, engine maintenance and mine ventilation. Arsenic is sometimes a contaminant of metal ores and has been commercially extracted during copper smelting with an accompanying risk of lung cancer. Exposures to nickel compounds in some nickel refineries have been reported to increase the risk of lung cancer and nasal sinus cancer. These risks have declined substantially with improving hygiene, however. Several other metal ores, including those of lead, cadmium, manganese, platinum and cobalt, present health hazards. The risks are usually greatest during metallurgical processing, when air concentrations exceed those experienced during mining of the ore. Appropriate control measures are required. Exposures to coal tar pitch volatiles in Soderberg aluminum smelters have been reported to increase the risk of lung cancer and bladder cancer. Occupational asthma has also been a problem in the pot rooms of aluminum smelters. Coal dust and methane gas explosions in underground coal mines remain a serious risk, requiring comprehensive monitoring and management. Some underground coal mines also have problems with carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide gas. Cyanide is used as a solvent for metals such as copper and gold in hydrometallurgical processes. Exposure to hydrogen cyanide gas can occur during cyanide solution preparation. Skin splashes with cyanide solutions are hazardous, although the risk is minimised by the use of low concentration solutions. Cyanide solutions are usually alkalinised to reduce the risk of hydrogen cyanide gas being created/produced on contact with water. Xanthates are reagents commonly used in hydrometallurgical processes. They produce carbon disulphide gas on combustion, or on mixing with water. Suspected acute carbon disulphide toxicity has been reported during xanthate reagent preparation at a gold mine. Toxicity can result from inhalation of mercury vapour during preparation of amalgam, retorting or smelting. Hydrofluoric acid is used in the analysis of core samples taken during exploration drilling. Smelting of sulphide ores produces sulphur dioxide gas, which can cause acute bronchospasm. In addition, irritant dermal exposures are common in mining and often result in dermatitis.

Biological hazards

The risk of tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever is substantial at some remote mining locations. Leptospirosis and ankylostomiasis were common in mines, but eradication of rats and improved sanitation has controlled these hazards effectively in the developed world. Cooling towers are commonly found on mine sites. Regular microbiological analysis of the water is necessary to detect Legionella contamination or high concentrations of other heterotrophic microorganisms.

Ergonomic hazards

Although mining has become increasingly mechanised, there is still a substantial amount of manual handling. Cumulative trauma disorders continue to constitute the largest category of occupational disease in mining and often result in prolonged disability. Overhead work is common underground, during ground support and during the suspension of pipes and electrical cables. This can cause or exacerbate shoulder disorders. Also, broken ground is often encountered and can cause ankle and knee injuries through slips and falls. Most mines operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week, so shiftwork is very common. There has generally been a trend towards 12 hour shifts in recent years. Fatigue in relation to shiftwork has been subject to considerable investigation in the industry. Sleep deficits, which might be expected in hot locations, have been shown to cause impairments to cognitive and motor performance among drivers from other industries. The remote control of mobile equipment in underground mining has been introduced to reduce the risk of fatal injuries from rock falls. This has required attention to cognitive ergonomic issues, many of which are similar to those found in metallurgical plant control rooms. Proximity safety devices have also been developed.

Psychosocial hazards

Drug and alcohol abuse has been a difficult issue to deal with in mining, but policies and procedures are now in place in most large mining operations. Debate continues about how to measure psychophysical impairment. Nevertheless, mining operations commonly require the measurement of urinary drug metabolites and breath or blood alcohol measurements on pre-employment, and following accidents. Remote locations are common in mining. Massive ore-bodies, such as those at Mount Isa in Queensland, Australia, that have been mined for 80 years, justify the establishment of a city. Contemporary finds, however, tend to be smaller and do not justify establishment of permanent townships. As a result, there has been a trend towards ‘fly-in-fly-out’ operations, with mine employees separated from their families and communities during work periods. Expatriate placements are also common in mining and the associated psychosocial hazards have been reviewed recently. Unfortunately, fatal and severe traumatic injuries continue to occur in mining and often have a profound impact on morale. Post-traumatic stress disorders sometimes develop in witnesses, colleagues and managers. Registered managers often feel personally responsible for such injuries, even in the absence of negligence, and face the ordeal of government inquiries and legal proceedings.

Mine Emergency Response Plan (MERP)

Prompt action is required to control mine fires, explosions, entrapments, or inundations. A Mine Emergency Response Plan (MERP) that outlines procedures and is prepared in advance is essential for effective containment of an emergency situation. Being properly prepared for an emergency can help save lives and protect financial investments. For example, a MERP helps to determine the following:

• What actions can be taken to prevent an emergency

• What precautions would minimise the effects of an emergency, should one occur

• What immediate actions mine personnel should take to contain an emergency

• Whether mine employees have the skills necessary to carry out the procedures outlined within the MERP

• Who will assume temporary command of the emergency effort

• Who is in charge of which parts of the emergency operation

• What kinds of special services and mutual aid support are available to sustain rescue actions

• How key personnel will obtain information and assess reports to make critical decisions

• Effective media relations procedures An established MERP is critical to a company’s ability to contain an emergency before it gets out of control. A MERP ensures that supervisory and other personnel know exactly what to do to prevent and/or control an emergency. A MERP can be applied to a single mine or to a group of mines. Mine operators develop standard response procedures for emergency situations by organising and preparing personnel to function and respond effectively. In particular, emergency response procedures:

• Assist personnel in responding quickly and effectively to an emergency

• Provide a common set of practises that govern the activities needed for an orderly response

• Outline strategies for early containment and control of an emergency

• Establish a common set of rules for training all emergency response personnel Additionally, a review of the MERP can be used to assess a company’s current level of readiness and can be applied to a department, a mine, or a group of mines. Management can then develop specific goals for improving the company’s emergency preparedness programme.

Elements of a Mine Emergency Response Plan

The elements listed below should be included in the MERP:

• Policy Directive

• Mine Emergency Response Plan Coordinator and Planning Group

• Emergency Identification, Prevention and Protection

• Emergency Notification Plan

• Emergency Management Organisation for Incident Command

• Emergency Operations Centre

•Duties and Responsibilities of Personnel

• Mine Emergency Response Procedures

• Action Plans

• Mine Plan

• Evacuation Plan and Map of Escape Routes

• Check-in/Check-out Procedure for Emergency Operations

• Mutual Aid Agreement

• First Responders Consultation

• Communication Services

• System for the Dissemination of Information

• Training Plan

• Practise Session Plan

• Plan for Review and Updating

• Costs Your rights under the Act

• Be protected against discrimination when you exercise your rights under the Act, including reporting violations and unsafe conditions at any mine

• Request an inspection of your mine when you believe that an imminent danger, a violation of the Act, or a violation of a safety or health standard exists

• Be informed of, and participate in, enforcement proceedings under the Act

• Be paid for certain periods of time when a mine, or part of a mine, has been closed because of a withdrawal order

• Receive health and safety training during your normal working hours and to be paid for that time at your regular rate of pay If you are a representative of miners, you have the right to:

• Be protected against discrimination when you exercise your rights under the Act, including reporting violations and unsafe conditions at any mine

• Request an inspection of your mine when you believe that an imminent danger, a violation of the Act, or a violation of a safety or health standard exists

• Be informed of, and participate in, conferences and enforcement proceedings under the Act

• Inspect certain books and records at the mine

• Receive copies of certain documents under the Act If you are a representative who is also a miner, you have the right to:

• Be paid for time spent while participating in health and safety inspections at your mine under certain circumstances If you are an applicant for employment, you have the right to:

• Be protected against discrimination when you exercise your rights under the Act, including reporting violations and unsafe conditions at any mine Your responsibilities under the Act A good safety and health programme depends on the active participation and interest of everyone at the mine site. If you and your fellow miners exercise your responsibilities, you can help decrease workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses. As a miner, it is your responsibility to comply with all Federal and State laws and regulations and your mine’s safety and health policies. When refusing to work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, you are responsible for notifying the operator, a supervisor, or other responsible person. This gives the operator the opportunity to address the situation. A supervisor or other responsible person employed by a mine:

• Has the responsibility to take appropriate action to address safety and health issues and concerns

• Is prohibited from interfering with, hindering, or delaying any inspection or investigation carried out under the Act

• Must admit an authorised representative (Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA inspector or investigator) into a coal or metal/non-metal mine for the purpose of an inspection or investigation

• Should permit access to and copying of any information, document or record requested during an inspection or investigation What are my rights? You have a right to:

•File or make a complaint of an alleged danger or safety or health violation to a Federal or State agency, a mine operator, an operator's agent or a miner's representative

• Participate in proceedings under the Act such as: testifying, assisting, or participating in any proceeding instituted under the Act, or filing a complaint with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission

• A medical evaluation or to be considered for transfer to another job location because of harmful physical agents and toxic substances; for example, a coal miner has the right to a chest X-ray and physical examination for black lung disease (pneumoconiosis) and potential transfer to a less dusty position if the miner has a positive diagnosis

• Withdraw yourself from the mine for not having the required health and safety training

• Refuse to work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions. NOTE: You must notify the operator of the condition and give them an opportunity to address the situation

• Exercise any statutory rights afforded by the Act


Humans are differ other animals in that we can read and write and therefore have a sense of the past. We differ in many other ways, of course, including the fact that we've found uses for - arguably, become addicted to - hundreds of minerals that exist on and beneath the earth's surface. Civilisation as we know it would simply not exist without steel, oil, and hundreds more metals and fuels. Unfortunately, there's a terrible price to be paid for the wrenching of these materials from the ground, and payment has been deferred too long. By one estimate, mining produces twice as much hazardous refuse as all other activities combined, and too often it's the environment that suffers. If we want to get to zero fatalities there are no options - contract workers have to be as valued as the general miner population. In addition, the industry needs to establish communication as the important first step. Contractors need to be a part of MSHA's problem solving groups within each district. There is a need to develop an up to date inventory and contact list for contractors for tracking purposes. There must be a cooperative approach for supervisor training and employee training. Also, vitally important is a systematic safety approach to contractor work on mine property involving training, tools and capacity.

Published: 06th Aug 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East