Occupational Health Hazards in Mining

This is the first-ever Guest Post on GeoMika, a request that forced me to invent a Guest Post Policy! Thank you to Megan Clark, a remote researcher from University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, for her writeup of one of the most insidious hazards in mine-work: inhaling dust that kills you slowly.

In spite of being very financially rewarding, mining has never been a risk-free environment and that is a known fact. Miners expose themselves to a wide array of occupational health hazards on a constant basis, and while some hazards are related to airborne particulates such as free silica or respirable mine dust, other occupational health hazards involve ionizing radiation, oxygen deficiency or prolonged exposure to noise.

An Overview of the Dangers Posed By Airborne Particles
There are three main types of airborne hazards miners expose themselves at when descending into the mine: the naturally occurring gases (which are often the cause of fatal explosions), chemical vapors and particles resulting from natural compounds present in the earth’s crust such as coal or silica. Mining involves drilling in the earth’s crust until the miners reach the desired metal or compound: during the drilling process, the workers are exposed to silica particles and coal dust. Despite the fact that nobody can totally prevent airborne particulates, the amount of respirable compounds can be dramatically reduced, thus decreasing the risk of respiratory conditions and other diseases like Pneumoconiosis.

Silicosis – One of the Most Common Occupational Diseases

It's not dust, it's silica

It’s not dust, it’s silica. Image credit: OSHA

Also referred to as the Miner’s Phthisis, silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease that is triggered by the prolonged inhalation of silica dust. The most common signs and symptoms of silicosis are the inflammation and scarring of the lungs – this is a form of pneumoconiosis that usually takes years to develop. In addition to inflammation, some other typical signs include cyanosis, cough, fever as well as shortness of breath. This condition is very common amongst miners who use pneumatic hammer drills and sandblasting, and if the disease is left untreated it can lead to the death of the patient within years or even months.

X-ray of silicosis damage.

X-ray of silicosis damage. Image credit: OSHA

On the other hand, the prolonged exposure to silica dust can also increase the risk for lung cancer and various autoimmune diseases. Fortunately, the number of miners suffering from silicosis has decreased over the past few decades, after dust control systems have been implemented in the mining environments: a fine water mist is sprayed after sandblasting, so that the silica and coal dust particles are “trapped” inside the water molecules, therefore preventing miners from inhaling them.

The Effects of Respirable Coal Dust

Black lung.

Black Lung. Image credit: UMWA

Coal dust is just as dangerous as the silica dust, and it occurs in most coal-processing facilities (especially in the mining/coal extraction sectors). Just like it happens with silica particles, coal dust occurs after drilling or blasting techniques. Cutting machines are also known to stimulate the production of coal dust which triggers Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis, a condition that is strongly related to other respiratory conditions, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Fortunately, the negative effects of modern drilling techniques can be reduces by avoiding the dispersion of the dust or by using regular water sprays and efficient ventilation techniques.

What is Asbestosis?
Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the lungs, and it occurs after the inhalation and retention of asbestos fibers. Until the use of asbestos was discontinued back in the 1970s due to the high threats it involved, it was not uncommon for miners to develop asbestosis after long-term exposure to this compounds. As a matter of fact, this was one of the most common occupational lung diseases, and it was often accompanied by dyspnea and lung cancer. What makes asbestos so dangerous is the fact that the fibers are virtually invisible and they easily cling to the lining of the lungs, thus affecting the internal tissue of the miners’ respiratory system. As an airborne disease, asbestosis is also considered to be a severe form of pneumoconiosis, along with silicosis.

Last, but not least, the gases and vapors that are eliminated by drilling and blasting machines (which usually have diesel engines) can increase the amount of carbon monoxide and increase the risk for oxygen deficiency, one of the most dangerous problems that can occur in mines. As you may already know, diesel particulates are small and respirable and they are carcinogenic, meaning that they can increase the long-term risk for lung cancer in miners who are constantly exposed to them. The amount of dangerous and respirable diesel particulates can be significantly reduced by replacing traditional fuel with high-quality fuel that is low in sulfur, and by using modern engines that are especially designed to reduce the generation of particles.

To conclude, the occupational hazards mentioned above are only a few of the most common and dangerous risks miners have to risk. Fortunately, the modern mining environments are not as dangerous as they once used to be, in terms of both mine structure and miners’ health.

Note from Mika: Want to learn more? The 4-day Mine Safety & Environmental Engineering course at the University of Ballarat is a great high-density chunk of information with a delightful professor. It is part of the VIEPS shortcourse program open to honours undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in a university in Victoria, Australia.

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