Mining underpins the South African economy by creating jobs, earning foreign exchange and paying taxes—but it remains a very dangerous profession. A good safety record will help mining attract people with the right skills and will also improve relationships with local communities and society at large, says Rani Naidoo, Application Engineer Personal Safety Division for 3M South Africa.
“Looking after the wellbeing of its employees is a key component of mining’s social licence to operate, and safety in all its aspects is critical. While fatalities underground grab the headlines, both respiratory and hearing damage put mining houses at risk of class action lawsuits and government sanction, and hugely damage the industry’s image,” Naidoo says. “Technology Research &Development (R&D) has come up with great solutions for reducing or even preventing respiratory and hearing damage, but only if it is used correctly.
“One might say that the Science of Safety must be complemented by the Science of Fit.”
When it comes to respiratory diseases caused by mining, silicosis and asbestosis are both well-known because the massive class action suits that have already been decided. While asbestos is no longer mined owing to its health risks, silicosis continues to be a massive health risk for all workers exposed to dust from soil, sand, granite and many other minerals, including quartz. Miners are thus particularly at risk, but multiple other industries also put workers in contact with silica dust.
R&D into respirators is ongoing, Naidoo explains, in order to provide protection against silica dust in a variety of work situations. Responsible companies obviously see investment in this kind of equipment as vital in protecting employees’ safety but, Naidoo warns, not only must the right respirator be chosen for the specific working conditions, it has to fit the individual properly.
“Proper fit testing is essential to ensure that the equipment delivers the desired benefits—human bodies are individual, and one size definitely does not fit all. Fit testing was first mandated in the United States in the early 1970s and has become part of the occupational health and safety regimes in many other jurisdictions, but it remains poorly understood in South Africa” Naidoo notes. “But without it, the investment in equipment can effectively be wasted because it does not perform as it should.”
Qualitative and quantitative methods for checking the fit of a respirator exist. Both can be effective in different circumstances.
Noise is another huge risk for workers in certain work environments, and thus for their employers as well. Many industrial processes are extremely noisy, and United States Department of Labour statistics from 2010 show that permanent hearing loss is the most common occupational health risk in the manufacturing sector.
“We are starting to hear more about lawsuits relating to hearing loss, and many predict that they will become the next wave of class actions. As such, ensuring workers in noisy environments have the right equipment properly fitted makes sense on all levels,” Naidoo explains.
When it comes to protecting against hearing loss, there are a range of options from conventional moulded earplugs to muffs and electronic level-dependent hearing protectors, also known as active hearing protectors. The latter use technology to adjust noise levels up or down to protect against excessive decibel levels while allowing wearers to hear low sounds while the protectors are in place. Thus, the device does not need to be removed during periods of low noise in order to communicate, something that enhances productivity.
However, as in the case of respirators, the right type of equipment must be chosen based on where it will be used—and it must be properly fitted. Both require expert knowledge.
For example, many mining houses rely on custom-moulded earplugs for each employee, but in fact the diameter of the auditory canal can vary depending on the ambient air temperature. A moulding taken in winter, when the auditory canal is contracted to conserve body heat, will be too tight in summer, when the canal is expanded, and vice versa.
So important is the fit of the hearing protector that 3M has developed a computer-based-based validation system to enable managers to check whether the 3M hearing protectors fitted are performing as required.
“Science has a huge role to play in these two crucial risk areas, but the Science of Safety must be complemented by the Science of Fit to ensure optimal results. If this is done, employees will be protected against harm, employers will be protected against possible lawsuits and reputational damage and the mining industry will benefit from an enhanced social licence to operate,” Naidoo concludes. “Everybody wins.”