Mining is an industry in transition. The days of miners working shoulder-to-shoulder under dangerous conditions are disappearing, as modern machinery takes over for human labour. But there is still plenty to do to improve safety in one of our most dangerous occupations.
Adopting new technologies that make mining more efficient, less costly and more profitable, many sites are using robots instead of humans deep underground to explore tunnels and analyze mineral deposits. In both surface and underground mines, more companies are also investing in Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Unlike their diesel-fuelled counterparts, BEVs don’t produce dangerous carbon monoxide emissions, reducing the need for ventilation, and have fewer moving parts, resulting in lower direct maintenance costs.
As these and other modern innovations increase profitability through greater efficiencies, they’re also making mining much safer than it used to be. Known for decades as one of the most dangerous professions – along with logging, deep sea fishing, and bush-piloting small planes to remote areas – mining brings comparatively extreme workplace risks to its workers, both above ground and far below.
Some mining disasters have happy endings. But unlike the triumphant 2010 rescue, after 69 days, of 33 workers trapped in a Chilean mine, most mine accidents end in tragedy.
One of the most recent, the underground explosion and collapse at Hushan gold mine in China’s Shandong Province, saw 22 miners trapped and struggling for their lives 600 meters below. It took two weeks to bring the 11 survivors to the surface.
This was preceded by last September’s incident at the Songzao coal mine in Southwest China when a conveyor belt caught fire, creating dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. Only one miner survived out of 17.
Focus on safety pays off
Although their reputation for danger goes back centuries, mining sites continue to see their safety improving thanks to the industry, governments, associations, and forward-thinking companies.
Organizations such as The Mining Association of Canada, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in the United States, and groups across the European Union regularly issue updated health and safety reports, protocols, and guidelines.
Across Canada, provinces and territories, and bodies such as Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development also actively promote alerts, checklists, reports, and publications on boosting safety, from how to work on ice covers to safe mining in pits and quarries.
While it is estimated that 15,000 men and women die every year in mining disasters, according to several sources including TheWorldCounts.Com, the number of mine-related fatalities is dropping in many countries.
According to the U.S. Department of Labour, there were 24 mining fatalities in America in 2019, and 29 deaths in 2020. Despite the increase, 2020 marked the sixth consecutive year mining-related fatalities were below 30 in the history of MSHA, founded in 1977.
“The low number of mining deaths last year demonstrates that mine operators have become more proactive in eliminating safety hazards,” David G. Zatezalo, assistant secretary for mine safety and health, says in a media release. “But I believe we can do even better.”
According to Zatezalo, a “disproportionate number” of deaths involved contractors, and electrocution accidents. For the previous period 2017 to 2018, about half of all mining fatalities resulted from vehicle-on-vehicle collisions (including not using seat belts), and accidents involving conveyor belts.
COVID-19 and mining
When the World Health Organization (WHO) first reported a strange, pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China on January 9, 2020, there were only 59 known cases of what they believed to be a new coronavirus.
Just a few weeks later, the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was diagnosed in Washington State in a person who had recently returned from Wuhan. On January 31, over 200 deaths and almost 10,000 cases later – the WHO declared the virus a public health emergency.
Nearly a year and a half after it first appeared, COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the Earth. No industry has been spared, including mining, which often sees workers operating in unavoidably close proximity.
So mining companies have been compelled to add yet more layers to their existing safety protocols. Mine workers – already performing some of the most demanding jobs on or under the earth – for the sake of their health and even lives, need to maintain a distance of about six feet from one another, wear masks and other personal protective equipment, wash hands frequently with hand sanitizer, and stay home if coughing, feeling chilled or nauseated, having breathing difficulties, or showing other signs of infection.
Especially challenging for miners is avoiding tight proximity in poorly ventilated spaces where sharing airborne particles is almost inevitable. And to further prevent spread, employers are advised to stagger shifts, break times, and lunches, and hold any meetings outdoors or in large spaces where physical distancing is possible.
Adding yet another layer to the complexity of day-to-day mining operations, the pandemic reinforces the fact that preventing COVID-19 from spreading – along with other safety measures – is everyone’s responsibility.
While the potential risks are many, some of the biggest threats to workers below ground remain mine collapse and cave-ins, fire, explosions, floods, insufficient ventilation and toxic gases like methane, and the extreme temperatures found at depth in mines.
Above and below ground, miners face hazards including injuries and death from blasting and flying rock debris, pulmonary damage from dust, hearing loss from excessive noise, trips and falls, and muscle injuries, especially to the back, from lifting heavy equipment. By remaining vigilant, identifying, and reporting these and other hazards, mine sites can be much safer.
Importance of PPE
On mine sites, safety experts serve a valuable function, and are a constant reminder that watching out for other workers is everyone’s responsibility. Even with technology to make work safer, mining is still a dangerous occupation requiring workers to never let their guard down.
One of the most valuable tools to reduce risk on mine sites is professional training of both new and existing team members through refresher courses. While safety training has always been important, it is even more essential with COVID-19 as a factor. And just as important as paying attention to surroundings is using the right equipment for the job.
It may surprise some that protective equipment frequently comes with an expiration date. Although this may not exactly appear as a ‘best before’ date, PPE like hard hats and helmets are stamped with the date of manufacture. Some companies say they should be replaced every five years as a general guideline, but that varies considerably. Factors such as weather conditions and exposure to chemicals and sunlight will speed up deterioration of plastics. As for the interior suspension of helmets, this should be replaced no longer than 12 months after the helmet is first used.
And then, there is the issue of choosing and using the correct type of PPE, such as gloves. ‘Good’ often isn’t enough, since some gloves protect against scrapes and abrasions, while others are padded and made from extremely durable, cut-resistant synthetic materials.
Mine workers can pose less of a risk to themselves, and others, through the proper use of machinery and PPE, the safe operation of which requires extensive training and respect for tools.
In skilled hands, a pneumatic underground rock drill weighing about 88 pounds (40 kilograms) is an invaluable piece of percussive equipment for breaking and entering rock. Powerful and loud, these drills require operators to wear hearing protection, safety glasses, face protection, helmets, appropriate clothing and foot protection, and more.
As useful as face shields, earmuffs, and work gloves are, they are only effective when worn properly. It is not uncommon for workers in loud areas to remove ear protection to hear one another speak, which can cause hearing loss. Likewise, taking gloves off even for a moment can result in catastrophic hand injuries when working around jagged rock, gasoline and harsh chemicals.
Safety and accountability
When accidents happen, it is critical they are reported. This is unfortunately not always the case, as Ansell, an Australian manufacturer of protective gloves for industrial and medical markets, found when they released their Hand Safety Report in 2017. Surveying 381 respondents, including individuals from the mining sector, the report found almost half of managers likely under-reported the number of work-related hand injuries.
According to the study, key factors for this included the injured worker being forced to take time off work, and the issue of extended rehabilitation. There is no doubt, however, that poor workplace choices like that can have bad long term consequences for safety, all the worse for being easily avoidable.
Like construction and other occupations where workers are in close contact with one another in the presence of powerful tools and massive equipment, mining is a challenging job. Despite the risks, paying attention, raising questions, and properly using PPE remain the most valuable tools to prevent injuries and save lives.