Your good health is something you want to take with you on the other side of your mining career. Here are some of the industry’s most common dangers and how to keep safe.
It’s easy to be cynical about the importance of health and safety when you’re watching endless HR department videos during onboarding, or putting on layers of PPE at the start of your shift.
But your good health is something you want to take with you on the other side of your career—and it’s something you’ll miss once it’s gone. That’s why mining companies (and governments) pay such close attention to occupational health and safety.
In this article we’ll look at some of the most common dangers facing workers in the mining industry and the mitigation taken by responsible mining companies to keep employees safe.
If you’re spending a lot of time sitting or standing on machinery (for example, as a jumbo operator), you are likely to experience a lot of vibration. Vibration can become dangerous when it involves uneven surfaces (for example, the jerking of a ripping action in a bulldozer, as opposed to a pushing action).
Whole-body vibration can cause muscular-skeletal disorders, vision impairment, digestive problems, changes to your cardiovascular system and even reproductive damage in women. It can cause fatigue, headaches and balance issues.
Reducing risks ranges from big investments, like replacing manned machines with unmanned machines (e.g., remote control), to small actions like filling potholes which make roads uneven.
Unsurprisingly, mines are loud places to work. Explosions, drilling, the constant use of heavy machinery—there is plenty of opportunity for workers to damage their hearing if the correct precautions aren’t taken.
Being exposed to excessive noise can cause tinnitus, sleeping problems, concentration problems and, of course, permanent hearing loss (what is sometimes called “industrial deafness”, when hearing loss is acquired in the workplace).
Responsible mining companies minimise potential exposure to excessive noise through risk assessments, engineering solutions (noise baffles, vibration dampeners, etc.), good maintenance routines, and the use of effective PPE (correct grade earmuffs).
Heat and UV exposure
The risks of thermal stress and UV exposure in the Australian mining industry are high, thanks in part to the fact many mines are in remote locations in the hot north of the country. But on top of that, mines are hot and humid workplaces and shifts are long. The risk of thermal stress is real.
Overexposure to heat can cause fatigue, heat stroke, dehydration, nausea, headaches and even death. UV exposure brings with it risks of skin cancers and eye damage. Responsible mining companies use a mixture of engineering and policy solutions to reduce the risk to employees, including cooling systems, artificial shade and having rules around exposure times. PPE and sunscreen play an important role, too.
Falls, trips and lifting injuries
Despite the advanced technology that’s common in the mining industry, musculoskeletal injuries (anything that can impact your bones, muscles, nerves and circulatory system) are among the most common mining workplace injuries.
Here are some real examples that occurred in the Australian mining industry in 2019-20, according to official data.
- While removing the catwalk from a bulldozer a heavy-duty fitter fell from a 1.2m-high mobile work platform and struck his head on a concrete floor
- The operator of a loader received a fractured back after being jolted when the loader (being driven with a full bucket) ran over a rock
- An underground drill operator who was changing the hinge pin on the drill head of a diamond drill suffered a partial amputation
- A drilling offsider was struck on the head by the base of the cyclone on a drill rig, receiving neck injuries
- A worker at an open pit mine fell from a work platform while moving empty ammonium nitrate bags and suffered fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.
Those are obviously quite serious injuries, but they’re clear and real-world examples of the hazards mining industry employees face, and why occupational health and safety is no laughing matter.
Less dramatic, but still serious, are health concerns like repetitive strain injuries and back problems caused by lifting heavy loads manually.
Risk assessments, safe work procedures, safety railings and markings, and mechanical alternatives, are all part of the solution on responsible mine sites.
Chemical and toxic hazards
Mining is an industry that inherently uses various dangerous chemicals in its processes. There’s no getting around it. These chemicals are often toxic and corrosive and don’t mix well with our skin or lungs. Chemical burns, poisoning, suffocation and respiratory problems are all risks.
In 2019-20, for example, a worker at an Australian mine received thermal and chemical burns after they slipped into a hot caustic slurry which had overflowed onto a pad in a processing plant. In a separate incident, a boilermaker received facial burns after leaking LPG entered their helmet and ignited.
Risk assessments, effective safety policies and procedures (including hygiene and cleanliness), detection systems (e.g., carbon monoxide detectors) and appropriate PPE are all part of the solution.
It’s easy to forget about stress when we’re talking about dangers like chemical burns and potential amputations, but stress can be a killer in any workplace. Stress can cause fatigue, insomnia, difficulties concentrating, poor decision-making, low morale, anger, problems with communication, and a weakened immune system, and it can even lead to problems with substance abuse. It’s not hard to see how problematic, therefore, stress could be in a mining workplace environment. Any of the conditions listed here could easily lead to physical injury or fatality.
Responsible mining companies are aware of stress disorders and their effects on mental health, and have policies in place. Workloads are managed to sensible levels, open communication is encouraged, and help is made available to employees who need it. You can read about some examples here (including from BHP, Macmahon and Alcoa).
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