The prevention of occupational diseases and workplace injuries and fatalities will come under the spotlight on World Day for Safety and Health at Work (SafeDay) on 28 April 2018.

Supported by the World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation, SafeDay is a reminder to organisations that they can never become complacent about the safety and wellbeing of their employees.

With eight of the 10 deepest mines in the world, the South African mining industry is acutely aware of the health and safety challenges faced by miners working at great depths.

Innovative PPE Solutions Business Unit Manager, Anton Zwanepoel, says the introduction of strict safety legislation and protocol has witnessed a reduction in injury and fatality rates over time. “Concerted efforts by South Africa’s mining industry to reduce that fatality rate have resulted in the fatality rate dropping from 270 fatalities in 2003 to 81 in 2017.”

While fatalities tend to grab media attention, Zwanepoel says the nature of the work conducted by miners means they are vulnerable to several occupational health risks that do not always make headline news.

“Some the major health risks for miners include respiratory diseases such as pneumoconiosis (dusty lung) – which includes coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung) and silicosis – and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” he adds.

Not only do miners work in dusty conditions, they are also exposed to exhaust fumes from heavy machinery and various chemical emissions that affect their pulmonary health. In addition, extreme noise from drilling machinery and blasting can affect their hearing.

Another threat to miner health is whole body vibration from handling or being close to large machinery or generators, which can lead to musculoskeletal issues, vision impairments, reproductive damage in women, cardiovascular problems and digestive ailments.

People working in open-cast mines are particularly vulnerable to UV exposure, while those working underground are susceptible to thermal stress.

“Safety equipment has evolved over the years to protect miners in every possible scenario and reduce their risk of injury or occupational disease. This is underpinned by strict safety protocols, which require regular safety meetings and oversight by safety managers,” says Zwanepoel.

Even so, Zwanepoel says one of the greatest challenges to achieving a safe working environment in mines is a lack of adherence to safety measures.  “Often miners will arrive for duty in full personal protective equipment (PPE), but will discard it when the begin to feel uncomfortable or constrained. Safety officers cannot be everywhere all of the time, so it can go unnoticed,” adds Zwanepoel.

He notes investment in superior quality PPE in non-negotiable for mines. “It is also important that the PPE industry harness new technologies to create clothing and equipment that allows for improved scope of movement, enhanced ventilation and superior protection, whether it’s safety glasses that don’t hinder vision or clothing that doesn’t create a sauna-like effect around the body.”

Of course, any work environment needs to constantly be checked for safety hazards. “When new technology or processes are introduced into a workplace, they may be accompanied by new hazards or health risks. This is why regular health and safety audits are critical,” says Zwanepoel.

“The mining industry’s pursuit of zero harm means all stakeholders need to be committed to achieving the highest possible health and safety standards to protect the people who work in the industry. And the people themselves need to protect their own health as far as possible by embracing the health and safety measures afforded them,” concludes Zwanepoel.