3.3 Health

3.3.1 Airborne contaminants

Airborne particulates and gaseous emissions have the potential to cause personal health problems in the community, and dust and odour can cause annoyance and complaints.

Dust derived from the mechanical breakdown of rock and soil is the most widespread and abundant emission from mines and occurs across a range of particle sizes. Of direct relevance to health are the finer fractions—particles less than 10 microns in diameter (PM10) and especially those less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5). Finer particles are more readily transported into the lungs, where they can cause irritation and disease. In general, smaller particles are carried further by the wind than larger particles and so can affect nearby communities.

Amenity impacts from dust are usually associated with coarse particles and particles larger than PM10. The impact of dust from a nearby mine on local amenity depends on the distance from the mine site and climatic conditions, such as wind speed and direction. Concerns about amenity from mine-site dust often relate to the ‘visibility’ of dust plumes and dust sources. Visible dust is usually due to short-term episodes of high emissions, such as from blasting. Other amenity impacts include dust depositing on fabrics (such as washing) or on house roofs, and the transport of dust from roofs to water tanks during rain.

Gaseous emissions from mines include pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which have well-defined human health effects. Blasting at mine sites in Australia generally uses a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, or ANFO. The blasting of ANFO explosives can cause orange blast clouds of nitrogen dioxide that can travel across the mine’s boundaries into the surrounding area. They usually disperse rapidly and pose no acute health risk, but under certain conditions the gas plume may persist and can affect nearby people or residents who are downwind of the blast site. Symptoms from high-level exposure can include:

  • eye, nose and throat irritation and coughing
  • dizziness and headache
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing or the exacerbation of asthma.

Serious lung inflammation (pulmonary oedema) has been known to develop several hours after exposure to very high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NSW Government, n.d.).

Fugitive methane gas emissions from open cut and underground coal mines are another form of airborne contaminant. Coal industry fugitive emissions currently account for around 5% of Australia’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions (MCA, n.d.), which is a relatively small proportion. Nonetheless, the coal industry is working to reduce fugitive emissions from mining. An earlier handbook, Stewardship, included an example of a greenhouse gas emissions abatement strategy implemented by Anglo Coal Australia (pp. 24–25) that has three major activities: to improve methane capture, pipeline development and mine site utilisation (DITR 2006a:24–25).

Further detailed information on airborne contaminants at mine sites that affect mine workers and communities is in the leading practice Airborne contaminants, noise and vibration handbook (DITR 2009a; note that handbook has not been updated).

CASE STUDY: An example of airborne contaminants as a result of a mine fire—the Hazelwood mine fire

The Hazelwood mine fire began on 9 February 2014 during one of Victoria’s hottest and driest summers on record. Situated in the Latrobe Valley, the open cut brown coal mine operated in one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world. The fire was caused by embers spotting into the Hazelwood mine from bushfires burning close to the mine. The mine fire burned for 45 days, sending smoke and ash over the town of Morwell and surrounding areas for much of that time.

On 11 March 2014, a day after the fire was declared under control, the Premier of Victoria, Dr Denis Napthine MP, announced an independent inquiry into the fire. As described in the inquiry’s report (Hazelwood Mine Inquiry 2014), the fire constituted two emergencies: a major complex fire emergency and a serious public health emergency. The report described the public health emergency in the following terms:

Smoke and ash produced by the Hazelwood mine fire resulted in a number of distressing adverse health effects for Morwell residents, including sore and stinging eyes, headaches and blood noses. The majority of these health effects resolved when the fire was controlled, but some have persisted. Other community members have reported the development of new health conditions as a result of exposure to smoke and ash.

A number of vulnerable groups in the community were particularly susceptible to the adverse health effects of the smoke and ash, namely those with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, pregnant women and unborn children, children and the elderly. The Latrobe Valley has an ageing population with a higher incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The area also has a high percentage of low-income households and a higher percentage of residents who have a disability.

There were serious concerns in the community about the potential long-term health impacts of exposure to smoke and ash from the Hazelwood mine fire. Understanding and managing the health and environmental impacts of the Hazelwood mine fire is challenging, as the health effects of medium-term exposure to smoke and ash from a fire in a coal mine are not known.

A primary concern, from a long-term health perspective, is the duration for which residents were living with ashy, smoky conditions. The Board heard expert evidence that people with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions are particularly susceptible to potential adverse long-term health effects when exposed to ozone, PM2.5 and larger particulates. In particular they are susceptible to an aggravation or progression of their underlying condition, an increased risk of lung cancer and potential effects on coagulation, which could result in an increased risk of arrhythmias, morbidity, hospital admissions and death. There was also a risk that the general population could develop medium to long-term effects from the exposure to PM2.5 and ozone, including but not limited to the development of respiratory conditions, effects on cardiac conduction, increased risk of heart attack, stroke and lung cancer, long-term cognitive decline and psychosocial effects.

3.3.2 Waterborne contaminants

Water is vital to mining operations. The Minerals Council of Australia Water Accounting Framework (MCA 2012) illustrates the water flows between the environment and mining facilities (see Figure 3.1). Inputs include water received by a mine and surface and ground water. The output is water that is removed from the facility after it has been through a task, treated or stored for use. Water is classified as a diversion when it flows from an input to an output without being used by the facility. The flow is not stored with the intention using it in a task or treating it.

Mining tasks that require water include:

  • dust suppression
  • underground mining
  • haul road dust suppression
  • ore processing
  • coal handling and processing plant
  • tailings storage facility
  • co-disposal
  • amenities use.

Figure 3.1: MCA’s input–output model of mining/environment water flows

Figure 3.1: MCA's input-output model of mining/environment water flows

The use of water in mining has the potential to affect the quality of surrounding surface water and groundwater. Water contaminated with high concentrations of metals, sulphide minerals, dissolved solids or salts can negatively affect surface water quality and groundwater quality. Impacts on human health can occur where the quality of water supplies used for irrigation, drinking or industrial applications is affected.

In water basins where multiple industries co-exist, it is important that cumulative impacts on water be managed. It is critical for mining proponents to work with government, other industries and communities to ensure sustainable water use and the protection of water supplies used by nearby communities and for ecosystem protection. An example of an Australian community, mining, industry and government partnership in water management is described in the case study of the Fitzroy Partnership for River Health.

Australia’s extreme climate variability—ranging from drought to food—adds to the complexity of managing water for mines. For example, the potential for water contamination from process chemicals is minimal following the closure of a mine, but if the mine workings were to be subjected to natural flooding, minerals could dissolve and mix with the surrounding groundwater. This can be the case with active or abandoned mines during extreme weather.

There are four main types of mining impacts on water quality:

  • Acid mine drainage—Acid mine drainage severely degrades water quality and can make water virtually unusable.
  • Heavy metal contamination and leaching—Heavy metals (such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc) are leached out and carried in the water. This is accelerated in low pH conditions, such as are generated by acid mine drainage. It can also occur due to discharges of contaminated water when tailings dams overtop, or seepage through dam or pit walls.
  • Processing chemicals pollution—Chemicals used to separate the mineral can spill, leak or leach into water bodies. These chemicals can be toxic to humans (for example, cyanide) and also present an environmental risk.
  • Erosion and sedimentation—Excessive sediment can clog rivers and waterways.

The release of water from a mine site is governed by licensing arrangements in many countries, including Australia. The exposure of humans to noncompliant released waters may result in increased health risks, in addition to legal action and damage to reputation. During extreme weather, unplanned releases can cause significant environmental damage and pose major health risks.

How mine water affects communities and the environment has been identified as a high priority issue in developing countries (see case study). Because of past abuses, communities are concerned that mining could damage the environment, with flow-on effects on livelihoods and health. Contamination of water by artisanal scale mining has also been identified as an issue, due to its impact on the environment and the miners’ own health (Danoucaras et al. 2012)

Further detailed information on water management that affects mining operations and communities is in the leading practice Water management handbook (DITR 2008).

CASE STUDY: Fitzroy Partnership for River Health

The Fitzroy River Basin in central Queensland encompasses six major river systems running through an area of just over 140,000 square kilometres. The catchment stretches from the Carnarvon Ranges in the west to the river mouth in Keppel Bay, near Rockhampton. The basin has significant agricultural and mining industries, as well as being the largest river basin flowing into the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

Around 230,000 people live and work in the communities of the Fitzroy Basin. Agriculture is the major land use, and up to 90% of the landscape is used to produce food and fibre. The region also includes 40 of Queensland’s 55 coal mines.

The Fitzroy Partnership for River Health was established following the flooding of Ensham mine during the 2008–09 wet season. The partnership is a collective of government, agriculture, resources, industry, research and community interests that have a common goal of providing a more complete picture on river health. It supports that goal by providing funding and resources and contributing water-quality and ecosystem health monitoring data through data-sharing arrangements. Annual report cards are produced to inform considerations of whether current management strategies are proving successful in maintaining the health of aquatic ecosystems.

The community benefits through access to accurate water-quality and ecosystem health information, presented in a way that is understandable by all. In November 2014, the first Drinking water reports were released for Rockhampton and the Central Highlands, to complement the report card results grading the health of the rivers in the basin. ‘A’ grades were received for all townships tested.

Source: Fitzroy Partnership for River Health, http://riverhealth.org.au.

CASE STUDY: Water issues associated with mining in developing countries

A project funded through the International Mining for Development Centre (IM4DC) aimed to:

  • identify and analyse the main mining-related water issues currently experienced in developing countries
  • identify priorities for capacity building
  • outline solutions and possible barriers to solving the issues.

The project studied eight countries: Mozambique, Zambia, Ghana, Peru, Mongolia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. It examined a range of literature to ensure that the perspectives of scientists, academics, mining companies and communities were all included.

The project found that the dominant and highest priority issues identified by all sectors were those involving the community and the environment. Because of past abuses, communities were concerned that mining could damage the environment, with flow-on effects on livelihoods and health. Communities reported that they were not getting the information they needed to understand the impacts of mine-water-related issues. Although there is unbiased information available in the form of the scientific literature, it is not in a format that is accessible to them. Some of the solutions suggested were that academia and government do more to provide understandable, unbiased information to the community; that mining companies could involve the community in their environmental monitoring; and that governments require greater resources for enforcement and implementation of regulations.

Artisanal-scale mining was identified as a medium-level issue due to its impact on the environment and the miners’ own health. The issue was brought up not by the community, but in the scientific literature and company reports. Solutions already exist: governments must enforce regulations and close down illegal mines. In at least one example, a mine provided artisanal-scale miners with access to its land after the miners underwent training.

Of importance mainly to the companies was water access for future developments, which was assigned a medium-level priority. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is enough water for all users and it is suggested that governments adopt integrated water resource management principles.

Standardised water reporting was assigned a low priority. It had previously been brought up as an issue in an International Council on Mining and Metals study that looked mainly at developed countries, but there are other more pressing issues for developing countries.

Source: Danoucaras, Vink & Bansuan, 2012.

3.3.3 Noise

Noise is one of the most significant issues for communities located near mining projects, particularly due to 24-hour, 7-day operations. Mining activities such as blasting, drilling, digging and coal loading and the operations of excavators, trucks, conveyor belts and other machinery all contribute to elevated levels of environmental noise. This can be particularly disruptive for local rural communities accustomed to quiet surroundings. In some regions, there may be multiple mine sites that affect the same community, causing cumulative impacts. Cumulative noise impacts are now commonly raised as a key issue of concern for communities neighbouring mining regions. This includes communities in remote regions (such as the Bowen Basin) as well as those in more concentrated regional areas (such as the Hunter Valley) (see Franks et al. 2010). Noise can also occur throughout all stages of the logistics chain, including rail and truck haulage and port activities.

Blasting can cause noise and vibration, which can have an impact on neighbouring premises. Airborne vibration from blasting (known as airblast) can cause objects to rattle and make noise. At the levels experienced from blasting associated with mining, structural damage to adjoining properties is unlikely to occur. In addition, the noise levels from blasting at a mine site are unlikely to cause any hearing damage to anyone outside the site.

Noise levels experienced from mining operations, including blasting, in communities surrounding mines are generally not high enough to have direct health effects, such as hearing loss. However, the indirect effects of noise include sleep disturbance and interference with communication or concentration. This can lead to irritability and fatigue. Annoyance and discomfort from blasting can occur when noise startles people or when airblast or ground vibration causes the vibration of windows or other items.

Concerned with the potential impact of noise from their heavy vehicles, blasting and fixed plant infrastructure on local communities neighbouring their mining operations in Western Australia, Alcoa developed a noise management plan that includes monitoring systems, procedures, training and audits. Described in the following case study, it is an example of leading practice in noise management (Alcoa, n.d.).

Further information on noise generation, monitoring and effects can be obtained from the leading practice Airborne contaminants, noise and vibration handbook ‘(DITR 2009a).’

CASE STUDY: Alcoa and noise mitigation

Alcoa's example of leading practice in noise management

Alcoa's example of leading practice in noise management

3.3.4 Light

Excessive or obtrusive artificial light from mining operations or steps in the logistics chain, such as transport, can affect nearby communities. Light sources include fixed lighting around infrastructure, mobile lighting plants and mobile plant and equipment lights. When artificial outdoor lighting is annoying and unnecessary, it is known as light pollution. Light pollution can be divided into two main types:

  • annoying light that intrudes on an otherwise natural or low-light setting
  • excessive light that leads to discomfort and adverse health effects.

There is a growing body of scientific research suggesting that light pollution can have lasting adverse effects on human health, including sleep disorders and disruption of the melatonin mechanism (Chepesiuk 2009).

It is important to consider any lighting to ensure that it does not adversely affect communities or accommodation camps and villages.

CASE STUDY: Rosemont Copper Project—Monrad Study

The Rosemont Copper Project site in southern Arizona lies within an area of concern about the effects of light pollution. Because the project will operate around the clock, additional light pollution is a concern for astronomers and environmentalists. Several of the world’s most important observatories are nearby and rely on low levels of light pollution to do their work. Decades of concern by the astronomy community have resulted in the development and implementation of a stringent and continuously evolving outdoor lighting ordinance in Pima County.

As part of its commitment to the best possible environmental practices, Rosemont Copper Company will voluntarily employ an advanced light pollution mitigation plan. The plan will include the use of state-of-the-art lighting equipment and controls to minimise environmental impacts. Importantly, the plan must also comply with the project’s operational safety requirements prescribed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The plan will include the use of:

  • full cut-of solid-state light emitting diode (LED) lighting systems
  • high fitted target efficacy lighting systems and optics
  • specific-purpose lighting systems with optics that match task requirements
  • adaptive lighting controls to dim or extinguish lighting when it is not needed, and to provide immediate ‘instant on’ emergency or operational lighting
  • where colour rendering is needed, colour-tuned solid-state light sources for superior energy efficiency and optical control, with attenuated short wavelengths to minimise Rayleigh scattering
  • when colour rendering is not needed, narrow band solid-state lighting to emulate low-pressure sodium light, but with superior optical and electrical control
  • colour-adaptive lighting, to shift from narrow band amber emissions to higher colour-rendering light when colour rendering is needed.

(Source: Monrad et al. 2012)

3.3.5 Contamination by hazardous materials

A range of hazardous materials could be present at a mining operation. Some specific metals, such as uranium and lead, are inherently risky to extract. There is also variability in how the minerals are processed. Particular aspects of operations that might cause health threats include the following:

  • Smelting, where the ore is processed at high temperatures—Toxic gases can be released through air emissions and heavy metals can be discharged into groundwater and surface waters.
  • In situ leach mining, where the ore is processed in place in the ground—Hazardous pollutants can be released into streams, lakes or drinking water wells.
  • Heap leaching and other leaching methods, where chemicals such as cyanide or sulphuric acid are employed—Leaks of toxic solutions are common and can contaminate ground or surface water.
  • Tailings dams, where the waste products from a mineral-processing plant are retained.

The broader geographical possibilities for contamination resulting from processing and transport should also be considered. Pollutants from smelters, for example, such as lead and mercury, can be carried long distances by wind and water. Mining pollution can be distributed far from the mine site and can create public health impacts along the transport route.

Further detailed information on hazardous materials management that affects mining operations and communities is in the leading practice Hazardous materials management handbook (DITR 2009b).

CASE STUDY: Kidston Gold Mine

The grazing trial at Kidston Gold Mine, North Queensland, aimed to assess the take-up of metals from tailings and the potential for unacceptable contamination of saleable meat. Further aims included estimating metal dose rates and identifying potential exposure pathways, including plant uptake of heavy metals, tailings adhering to plants and the direct ingestion of tailings.

It was found that of the 11 metals analysed (As, Zn, Co, Cd, Cr, Sn, Pb, Sb, Hg, Se and Ni) in the animals’ liver, muscle and blood during the 8-month trial period, only arsenic and zinc accumulated. A risk assessment including those two metals was conducted to determine the potential for chronic metal toxicity and long-term contamination, using the estimates of metal dose rate.

It was concluded that no toxicity or long-term contamination in cattle was likely at this site. Management procedures were therefore not required at this site; however, the results highlight the percentage of groundcover and standing dry matter as important factors in decreasing metal exposure from direct ingestion of tailings and dust adhering to plants.

Source: Bruce et al., 2003.

CASE STUDY: Esperance Port lead issues

Magellan Metals, an offshoot of Canadian company Ivernia, started exporting bulk lead carbonate concentrate through Esperance Port in July 2006. The product was transported some 800 kilometres from the mine site near Wiluna in the Northern Goldfelds in eight-tonne kibbles covered by tarpaulins, first by road to the railhead at Leonora and then by rail to Esperance. At the port, the contents of the kibbles were tipped into a hopper and transported via conveyor to a storage shed, where the product could sit for up to two months before shipment. In 2006–07, 86,262 tonnes of product was exported, and in 2007–08, 79,588 tonnes.

Exports were halted in March 2008 following the deaths of birds of a number of species in the vicinity of the port, first in December 2007 and then again in March 2008. Tests showed levels of lead in the birds’ organs. Investigations indicated that the cause of the deaths was the lead dust escaping from the port boundary during inloading and outloading operations. The low level of moisture in the product when it left the mine site was identified as the problem.

In December 2008, a project team was set up by the Western Australian Department of Transport to clean the Esperance town site of lead carbonate and nickel sulphide dust. The port had handled nickel sulphide concentrates as a bulk product for many years. The project team developed clean-up guidelines, sampling methodologies, cleaning procedures, and validation and monitoring procedures. Isotopic testing identified 2,502 premises within the town (about half) as being contaminated, and after further analysis found that 1,847 homes and other buildings needed some form of cleaning.

The project involved cleaning the roof spaces in 433 premises; cleaning roof surfaces, gutters and rainwater tanks at 1,144 premises; and cleaning internal and external surfaces of 1,648 premises. The physical clean-up was completed in 2011, but a monitoring program continued to ensure that no recontamination occurred. More than 300 people (mainly contractors) were employed on the project, which took more than three years and 220,000 hours to complete. At a cost of $25.7 million, the project was the biggest environmental clean-up ever undertaken in Western Australia.

Stringent environmental conditions were imposed on the port, including an extensive monitoring regime and a clean-up that included replacing soil and railway ballast along the internal rail network. A $22 million upgrade of the port’s heavy metals concentrate circuit fully enclosed the conveyor system and turning points. A lead removal plan had to be prepared and approved by the environmental authorities for the 9,000 tonnes of lead that remained at the port after exports were stopped. The lead was bagged under controlled conditions, and the last of the product left the port in May 2009. The port continues to handle nickel concentrates, but they come into the port and are shipped in containers.

Source: Esperance Port Authority annual reports 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, http://www.esperanceport.com.au/reports-annual.asp.

3.3.6 The psychosocial hazards of mining on communities

Large-scale mining operations can affect the people living in their vicinity in a variety of ways, some of which are positive, some negative (tables 3.2 and 4.1).

Potential benefits include increased employment and business opportunities, improved infrastructure and services, and social investments made by companies aimed at improving wellbeing and liveability in communities (such as building a swimming pool or funding youth workers). Potential negatives include landscape disturbance, the contamination of rivers and other water sources, the destruction of traditional livelihoods, reduced amenity (noise, dust etc), increased conflict within communities, local price inflation, housing shortages, rapid population influx and loss of cultural heritage.

The nature and scale of impacts can vary markedly from mine to mine, depending on a host of different factors, including:

  • the mine’s location (is it a settled area, or remote and sparsely populated?)
  • whether the mine is on or near Indigenous lands
  • the method of mining used (such as open cut or underground)
  • the local economy (is it largely dependent on mining and industry, or mainly agricultural?)
  • local people’s experience and knowledge of mining
  • the community’s adaptability and resilience
  • how well the mine managers understand and manage impacts.

Impacts also vary across the project life cycle (from construction to operation to closure), and through the commodity price cycle (booms present different issues from downturns).

Governments often now require developers of mines and other large projects to undertake a social impact assessment as part of the ‘front end’ project approval process. The assessments are intended to enhance understanding of how communities might be affected by a development and to identify how unwanted impacts can be avoided or mitigated. Once projects are approved, there is usually little subsequent regulatory oversight of the social impact management process.

However, several leading mining companies have now voluntarily implemented social management systems that include a greater investment in baseline studies, ongoing monitoring of social impacts and risks, and regular updating of management plans to prevent and reduce unwanted impacts and manage risks. Responsible mining companies understand that a failure to address community concerns can threaten a project’s ‘social licence to operate’, making it harder to get regulatory approval for new projects, reducing workforce productivity, causing reputational damage to the company and, in some cases, exposing it to legal action. For the same reasons, it is in the long-term interests of mining companies to better understand and manage the psychosocial hazards associated with unwanted social impacts. See Table 3.2 for some of the changes induced by mining that can lead to social impacts.

Table 3.2: Common changes induced by mining that can lead to social impacts

Social and cultural change
Population and demographics In-migration, out-migration, workers’ camps, social inclusion, growth or decline of towns, conflict and tensions between social groups
Social infrastructure and services Demands on and investment in housing skills (shortages and staff retention), childcare, health, education and training
Crime and social order Corruption, domestic violence, sexual violence, substance abuse and trafficking, prostitution, change in social norms, pace of change for vulnerable communities
Culture and customs Changes in traditional family roles, changing production and employment base, effect of cash on community, reduced participation in civil society, community cohesion, sense of place, community leadership, cultural heritage
Community health and safety Disease, vehicle accidents, spills, alcohol and substance abuse, pollution, interruption to traditional food supply, awareness and treatment programs
Labour Health and safety, working conditions, remuneration, right to assemble, representation in unions, labour force participation for women
Gender and vulnerable groups Disproportionate experiences of impact and marginalisation of vulnerable groups (women, disabled, aged, ethnic minorities, Indigenous and youth), equity in participation and employment
Human rights and security Abuses by security personnel (government, contractor, company), social disorder in camps, suppression of demonstrations, targeting of activists, rights awareness programs
Economic change
Distribution of benefits Employment, flow of profits, royalties and taxes, training, local business spending, community development and social programs, compensation, managing expectations, equitable distribution across state/regional/local/ ethnic/family groups, cash economy
Inflation/deflation Housing (ownership and rents), food, access to social services
Infrastructure Demands on and investment in roads, rail, ports, sewerage, telecommunications, power and water supplies
Social and socioeconomic change
Pollution and amenity Air (e.g. dust), water (e.g. acid and metalliferous drainage, cyanide, riverine and submarine waste disposal), noise, scenic amenity, vibration, radiation, traffic, government capacity to monitor and regulate
Resources (access/competition) Land, mobility, water (groundwater, river, ocean), mineral resources (artisanal and small-scale mining), cultural heritage, forest resources, human resources, post-mining land use
Resettlement Consent and consultation for resettlement, compensation, ties to land, adequacy of resettlement housing and facilities, equity, post-settlement conditions, livelihoods
Disturbance Disruption to economic and social activities (including by exploration), consultation for land access, frequency and timing, compensation

Source: Franks (2011).

Stress and ill-health

When mining-induced changes are viewed by a community or individual as detrimental and unable to be suitably managed or controlled, stress may result. A large body of literature now suggests that chronic stress is a potential pathway to physical and psychological ill-health, particularly for depression and cardiovascular disease (Cohen et al. 2007); however, demonstrating that link is particularly difficult because it involves the complex interaction of biological, psychological, social and societal factors across the lifespan.

As discussed in earlier sections of this handbook, mining activity has the potential when not suitably controlled to expose workers and nearby communities to airborne and waterborne contaminants, noise, light and hazardous materials that can compromise their physical health. The causes of occupational disease as a result of chemical or biological factors are largely known. For example, contaminants are absorbed by the skin, ingested or inhaled and act as irritants or systemic poisons. In comparison, the trajectory from stress to ill-health (physical or psychosocial) is less clear-cut.

While chronic stress is known to alter our sympathetic, neuroendocrine and immune systems, less is known about the next step that links these alterations with ill-health. Confounding the issue are stress-induced changes in behaviour, such as risky alcohol or drug use or isolating oneself from family and friends, which in themselves can adversely affect health. Pre-existing vulnerabilities related to individual factors such as genetics, lifespan stage, life story and levels of support also add complexity by perhaps causing some people to be more vulnerable to stress than others. It is also now thought that stress does not exist in a negative event, but rather results from the way an individual evaluates or interprets the event and their coping resources. Therefore, stress reactions are more likely to occur when:

  • the change event is perceived as being harmful, threatening or challenging
  • the community or person perceives that they do not have the resources, coping strategies and/or support available to manage or influence the disruptions caused by the event (Lazarus & Folkman 1984).

Despite this complexity, chronic stress does appear to contribute to ill-health (directly or indirectly). On that basis, mining proponents should suitably control operations that are known to trigger acute stress responses, particularly those that persist across long periods of time. The most obvious are physical aspects that arise as a function of mining operations, such as mining-induced disturbances of visual amenity, noise, light, odour, traffic and vibration, all of which can occur ‘too often’ and persist ‘too long’ and potentially produce a sustained stress response in communities.

These problems are largely addressed in mining and environmental legislation. Best practice management of them includes the implementation of controls throughout the lifespan of the mine, initial assessments of impacts, community engagement (including community issue and complaint systems), careful mine design and practice, fit-for-purpose equipment, the training of personnel, and ongoing and final rehabilitation of the site. An example of a method to develop suitable controls for mining-induced impacts is suggested below under ‘Substance abuse’. Best practice controls of noise, light and traffic are also described in the relevant sections of this handbook. Other mining-induced effects that could elevate local communities’ stress responses are landscape changes, workforce roster arrangements and social changes brought about by the influx of mining personnel.

Where multiple mining projects are operating in the same general area, nuisance and amenity factors may have a cumulative effect, exacerbating community distress. Cumulative impacts result from the aggregation and interaction of impacts and may be the product of past, present or future activities (Franks et al. 2010:300). In such cases, a more strategic management approach that includes multi-stakeholder, cross-government, single-company, multiple-company and cross-industry approaches is needed. Franks et al. (2010) suggest the following best practices in such circumstances:

  • strategic and regional planning
  • information exchange, networking and forums
  • pooling of resources to support initiatives and programs
  • multi-stakeholder and regional monitoring

Place identity

One explanation for the association between environmental disruption and stress is an individual’s sense of ‘place attachment’ or ‘place identity’ whereby the environment becomes part of their personal identity and they develop a strong attachment to the place (Connor et al. 2004). This view supports Albrecht’s (2005) concept of ‘solastalgia’, which describes a feeling of ‘homesickness at home’ that might be experienced when the home environment is significantly changed. It is distinct from nostalgia because it describes feelings of loss due to separation from home, despite the sufferer being at home.

A growing body of research has documented the impact of ecological disturbance on psychosocial health and wellbeing. People living in communities near to hazardous waste sites, chemical spills, industrial areas and mining regions (Baum & Fleming 1993; Connor et al. 2004) have been found to have elevated physical symptoms of stress (blood pressure, sympathetic arousal, cortisol levels) and/or emotional, cognitive and behavioural distress (worry, anger, feelings of loss, anxiety, depression, perceived loss of control, poorer task performance). In Australia, Connor et al. (2004) investigated people living in mining-affected communities in the Hunter Valley region and found that they experienced considerable emotional distress about the loss of or damage to homes, farming properties, the landscape and community heritage. A sense of loss was particularly felt for objects and places that had special significance for their persona history and way of life. In a later study, Higginbotham et al. (2006), using a measure of ‘the bio-psycho-social cost of development activities’, found significantly elevated ‘environmental distress’ scores in a group of people living near coal mines in the region compared to a group living in a nearby farming area.

A technique for managing community distress

Diagram that shows the Bow-tie methodology

Bow-tie methodology is used to manage unwanted events from a risk management perspective. In this form of analysis, the unwanted event is the centre (or knot) of the bow-tie. On the left and right side of the knot are listed the causes and consequences of that event, respectively. Each of the causes and consequences is linked to a series of controls that have the potential to either prevent the event occurring (preventive controls) or reduce the extent of the consequences (mitigating controls) (Kirsch et al. 2013). This method is commonly used by mining companies in Australia to help them implement safer operations. It is presented here to illustrate how it could be used to guide practice in building a body of controls for managing community distress as a result of mining activity. This could potentially be a means of sharing knowledge across the industry, as has been the case in the coal industry’s funding of the RISKGATE online tool for the management of key coal mining hazards (see www.RISKGATE.org, Kirsch et al. 2013).

Ideally, a bow-tie is developed using small groups of experts. For a particular unwanted event, the group could include key personnel from mining companies and community health-oriented organisations (GPs, government and private service providers).

Small group having a discussion

In the following example, the unwanted event (the knot in the middle of the bow-tie) is community distress. The particular cause that is addressed is reduced visual amenity. Because this handbook is focused on community health, consequences could be factors such as increases in incidences of reporting of psychological distress, unhealthy behaviours (such as increased alcohol use) and symptoms of illness. However, at earlier stages it is more likely to result in community anger, loss of trust in the mining company and so on. Potential preventive controls are shown in Table 3.3; mitigating controls are shown in Table 3.4.

Table 3.3. Preventive controls

Undertake a visual impact assessment
  • Undertake baseline landscape characterisation.
  • Assess the impacts (determine the visibility of the mine from many vantage points, including the person or group that would experience an impact, the duration of impacts etc).
  • Develop preventive and mitigating controls.
Undertake community engagement
  • Determine community values in terms of visual sensitivity to changes in particular landscapes, particularly in relation to residential dwellings, locations of public and private importance, heritage sites, tourist destinations, major and secondary roads.
  • Manage community complaints early to prevent escalation, including receipt of complaints, investigation, appropriate remedial action, feedback to the complainant, communication to site management or personnel and notification to external bodies where necessary.
  • Maintain and publicise a 24-hour, 7-day community and employee information phone line and email address.
  • Include in the mine’s annual review report a summary of any visual or landscape management issues and actions arising throughout the year.
Mine design
  • Buildings and structures designed, located and constructed so as to blend as far as possible with the surrounding landscape (coloured in suitable natural tones etc).
Mining operations
  • Keep out-of-pit dumping to a practical minimum.
  • Limit vegetation clearance to required areas only.
  • Respread any pre-stripped topsoil, fallen timber and leaf litter.
Undertake progressive rehabilitation
  • Aim to rehabilitate land as soon as possible after disturbances.
  • Carry out temporary rehabilitation (of overburden spoils etc).
  • Progressively excavate, backfill and rehabilitate pit areas over the life of the mine.
  • Remove infrastructure areas such as access tracks or roads and drill sites that are no longer needed to alleviate compaction and increase infiltration.
  • Construct earthworks to control drainage and provide sediment and erosion control.
Screening to minimise visual impacts
  • Retain existing roadside and fenceline vegetation.
  • Use vegetation screening around individual residential premises.
  • Use vegetation screening and elevated bunds around mine infrastructure and activities (accommodation, offices etc).
  • Recontour and rehabilitate out-of-pit spoil dumps to elevated landforms following mining operations to reduce visible impacts and support sustainable grazing.
  • On the closure of the mine, decommission and remove all structures.
Develop and implement a maintenance and monitoring plan for revegetated areas
  • Manage replanted areas through a landscape maintenance program that responds to site and environmental conditions and includes ongoing monitoring of planting success and weed management.
  • Employ an environmental/community officer (or delegate) to inspect and ensure compliance with the visual amenity plan.

Table 3.4. Mitigating controls

Ongoing community engagement
  • Community complaints management, including receipt of complaints, feedback to the complainant, communication to site management or personnel and notification to external bodies where necessary.
  • Maintain and publicise a 24-hour, 7-day community and employee information phone line and email address.
  • Include in the mine’s annual review report a summary of any visual or landscape management issues and actions arising throughout the year.
  • Run community forums, information evenings and workshops.
System to investigate community issues and complaints
Implementation of remedial action

Long-distance commute work arrangements

In the past 10 years, long-distance commute work arrangements have become commonplace in the Australian mining industry. Employees are transported (by plane, car, bus or any combination of them) to distant worksites, where they are accommodated either on site or in local communities. When workers travel between home and work by plane, such arrangements are known as fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) arrangements. In Australia, the resources boom of the 1990s and early 2000s led to an explosion in long-distance commute worker numbers, particularly in Western Australia and Queensland—Australia’s resource-richest states. In 2012–13, there were an estimated 70,000 such workers in those two states (SCRA 2013).

Long-distance commute work schedules generally consist of a series of extended rosters of consecutive 12-hour shifts in a block (or ‘swing’) that maximise workers’ days at the work site and lengthen their breaks at home. While the characteristics of FIFO accommodation facilities vary considerably from camp to camp, depending on such factors as the nature and location of the operation, the age of the camp, and the requirements of the company or operator involved, there is evidence of a move to more sophisticated design elements in modern FIFO accommodation. Earlier temporary accommodation was basic and was typically located on the mining lease or construction site. These camps were sometimes ‘closed’ facilities that were both physically and socially isolated from the nearest residential community. While such camps still operate, more recently there have been significant changes in the design and location of FIFO worker accommodation, with a greater range of facilities on offer and in some cases efforts to incorporate modern FIFO villages into existing residential communities. Increasing attention is being paid to understanding the experience of the FIFO lifestyle and the expectations of FIFO workers (Barclay et al. 2013).

FIFO has generated considerable public debate in the Australian community, prompting three recent government inquiries into the effects of FIFO practices on workers’, families’ and communities’ wellbeing (SCRA 2013; EHSC 2014; IPNRC 2015). Concerns have focused on whether extended periods away from family and friends have adverse effects on workers’ (and families’) psychosocial health and wellbeing—an issue that might be heightened in under-represented groups, such as women.

Plane used in transporting employees to distant worksites.

The advantages of FIFO work arrangements are that workers have a block of time of that is relatively free from work commitments. They do not have to live permanently in very remote regions, where some experience considerable social isolation, boredom and lack of services. Also, workers’ families living in in urban areas have better medical and emergency services, services for children with special needs, childcare services, a range of educational options for children and employment options that they would not have if they lived in remote areas.

FIFO has also been reported as causing a range of social and economic stresses in local or host communities. Some are associated with the loss of local benefits through ‘fly-over’ effects, including the failure of mining companies to provide employment or training opportunities to local people. Others are associated with the in-migration of the FIFO workforce, such as reductions in housing affordability, greater pressure on local services (medical and police), and increases in crime, drug use and prostitution.

Despite the potential problems associated with FIFO arrangements, they are likely to persist due to the continued economic importance of mining, the remote location of mining in Australia, the preference of some workers to live with their families in urban areas and labour shortages in rural areas. Recommendations from the recent government inquiries have included minimising the length of rosters and setting limits on the proportion of a company’s workforce that is involved in FIFO arrangements. Further industry–research collaborations are needed to identify evidence-based information about the conditions that exacerbate FIFO impacts and about interventions to better support workers, families and communities.

Substance abuse

Australian mines are obligated under WHS legislation to effectively manage risks associated with workers whose behaviour is impaired by alcohol and illicit drugs. They do so using SHMSs comprising education programs, Employee Assistance Programs and assessments to decide a person’s fitness for work. However, companies cannot control their employees’ behaviour outside of work. Increased drug and alcohol use in society, particularly among men, is well documented and has been linked to an increasing incidence of mental health problems in the population as a whole.

One particular concern in the workplace is the difficulty of detecting and managing users of newer synthetic drugs. Another issue reported by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction is that ‘drug testing cannot detect psychological factors associated with regular use, such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and aggressive behaviour that can impact workplace productivity, safety and worker wellbeing’ (Pidd & Roche 2015).

While the overall use of methamphetamines has remained stable in the past decade (around 2% of people are users), the use of one form of it—‘ice’ (or crystal methamphetamine)—has doubled. It is more commonly used by 18–30-year-old men, particularly those living in remote and very remote areas who are technicians or tradespeople (AIHW 2014). As the mining workforce’s demographic is similar to that of those most at risk for illicit drug use, mining companies have the potential to participate in workforce and community programs that build awareness of the effects of drugs and alcohol on health, wellbeing and medical and psychological conditions, particularly for at-risk groups (such as young men).

3.3.7 Communicable diseases

The health needs of communities dependent on or living around mining sites can be significant, particularly in developing countries but sometimes also in remote regions of developed countries. There is the risk of communicable diseases (including respiratory, gastrointestinal or sexually transmitted diseases) arising from interactions among the workforce and local communities.

Programs to address the risk of communicable disease require appropriate management and education of the workforce to be put in place. These programs originate at the mine site and target employees at risk of a range of communicable diseases. Once developed and tested at the site, programs often extend to include local employees’ family members, in addition to the associated communities. One such example is of Newmont’s program to mitigate the risk of HIV/AIDS and malaria among its employees (see case study).

CASE STUDY: Workplace program for HIV/AIDS and malaria, Newmont Ghana Gold

Program rationale

Following a Newmont-initiated health survey conducted in the area around the Ahafo mine concession in 2005, Newmont Ghana Gold studied the gaps in healthcare provision and the burden of disease in the area. The company focused on malaria and HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment, given that the prevalence of malaria among employees was 8% in 2006 and HIV prevalence in the Brong Ahafo region, where the Ahafo mine is located, was 3.3%. Recognising that both of these communicable illnesses could have an unacceptable impact on the wellbeing and productivity of the company’s employees, the leadership of Newmont Ghana decided to begin with workplace vertical programs before expanding the tested model into the wider project-affected communities.


In consultation with the Ghana Health Service and district authorities, the HIV/AIDS workplace program began in 2005 and the malaria workplace program began in 2007. The HIV/AIDS program is centred on Newmont’s corporate HIV/AIDS policy of prevention, non-discrimination and support. The program comprises a voluntary counselling and testing service and a peer education initiative. It has trained a selection of educators from among Newmont’s employees and contractors, delivering awareness campaigns on HIV/AIDS and malaria to more than 10,000 people each year. The voluntary counselling and testing service also includes blood sugar and blood pressure tests for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Other major components of the HIV program include:

  • prevention messages through routine workplace update meetings and peer education
  • condom promotion and distribution
  • sexually transmitted infection counselling and management
  • treatment and support for workers with HIV
  • counselling and testing.

Outcomes and impact

Malaria prevalence dropped from 8% per year for employees at the outset of the program to 1.1% in 2012, and testing for Newmont Ghana employees in Ahafo rose from 172 employees being tested to 1,011 in 2012.

In 2010, the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria voted Newmont Ghana’s as the leading HIV/AIDS and malaria workplace program.

These results are likely to be sustained as long as the program continues. Sustaining results, particularly once the mine exits and the Newmont Ahafo Development Foundation (NADF) is overseeing the vast majority of the communities’ development projects, will be a challenge for district health directorates.

Source: ICMM (2013).

3.3.8 High-risk groups

When considering the safety and health of a community, it is important to recognise that a number of high-risk groups in the community may have particular needs or require additional protection. They may view mining activities as being more harmful to their lifestyle or way of life, or they may see themselves as having fewer available resources (or power) to manage or confront change. Such groups may include:

  • Indigenous groups, who might experience high levels of poverty and employment disadvantage
  • women and girls, who might experience employment or education discrimination
  • children, who might be at greater risk for certain health problems due to the effect of pollutants, such as lead, on development
  • poorer households, who might not have the resources necessary to identify or address health issues
  • elderly or disabled people, who might not be able to or wish to leave an area of health risk
  • those without access to or the ability to own land, whose need for income might push them to illegal operations.

These high-risk groups can have more severe health problems from exposure to mining health risks. For example, extended rosters of 12-hour shifts, which are typical in the mining industry, can differentially affect families. While resilient families might have the resources to better adapt to the demands of an often absent (and sometimes fatigued) parent, vulnerable families could experience extra stress. For instance, the symptoms of a family member with a chronic physical or mental illness might be exacerbated when they are unable to receive the extra support given by a regularly absent parent.

3.3.9 Potential health benefits from mining to the community

A mining operation also has the potential to significantly benefit the local population by creating direct and indirect employment, transferring skills, enhancing the capacity of health and education services, improving infrastructure, and creating business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises. This needs to be considered in a sustainability framework, as the inevitable closure of a mine can also cause significant adverse effects for the local population.

Resources available locally for health services typically increase markedly with mine development as companies develop facilities for employees and their families. This may translate into overall improvements in community health if the facilities are made available to the broader community. Employment and higher living standards can bring important nutritional and psychological benefits, and better health standards.

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