2.2 Health and safety for mine workers

These changes in the focus of WHS have led to the development of the systems model of health and safety management. Both health and safety for workers in the mining and minerals industry are managed by a risk-based process as outlined by legislation, which leads to the development of safety and health management systems (SHMSs).

This is characterised by the recognition of the following:

  • Health and safety are affected by all aspects of the design and workings of an organisation.
  • The design and management of health and safety systems must integrate environment, people and systems in proportions that reflect an organisation’s unique characteristics. No one system is universally effective.
  • Health and safety are also management functions, not just the responsibility of individuals; that means there must be management commitment and involvement.
  • Unifying elements produce a set of defined responsibilities and accountabilities for activities at all levels of the organisation.
  • Incidents, injuries and illnesses are an indication of a problem in the system, not simply human error.
  • Human error can occur at all levels in an organisation and not just by those who are injured or killed.
  • Performance goals must reflect management objectives.

2.2.1 Chronic and acute health and safety risks

When assessing risks affecting health and safety it is important not to focus only on those relating to a specific incident (acute hazards) but also to allow for those that are generated as a result of repeated exposure to a hazard (chronic hazards). The characteristics of acute and chronic hazards are shown in Table 2.2.

Table 2.2: Characteristics of acute and chronic hazards

ACUTE HAZARDS CHRONIC HAZARDS
Single exposure Cumulative over time
Outcome:
  • Death
  • Injury
Outcome:
  • Long-term or short-term disability
  • Death
Opportunity for harm may exist for a short period of time Opportunity for harm exists for long periods of time
Often close link between cause and effect Outcome may appear long after exposure to harm

Acute hazards (often allied to the principal hazards shown in Table 1.1) tend to be managed via specific management plans. Chronic hazards tend to be covered under the requirement to provide a safe working environment and manage exposure to contaminants and other hazards to acceptable levels.

The management of occupational health is more complex, in that it can involve factors beyond the control of the mine operator, some of which may exist of the mine site. For example, it is very common under the WHS Acts to require the mine to manage the fitness for work of a mine worker, including fitness for work as influenced by:

  • alcohol
  • drugs (prescribed, over the counter or illicit)
  • personal fatigue
  • physical impairment
  • psychological impairment.

In essence, the management of the potential for harm from these elements is controlled through the same process as safety—the development and implementation of an SHMS that includes fitness-for-work considerations. Fitness for duty can be affected by the actions of the mine worker when they are not on the mine site.

For alcohol and drugs, many sites use all or some of the following assessments to decide a person’s fitness for work:

  • voluntary self-testing
  • random testing before starting work
  • testing the person if someone else reasonably suspects that the person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

However, the system should not just be about testing for the presence of alcohol or drugs but should be an integrated process that includes education and awareness programs and an employee assistance program.

Management of fatigue needs to include:

  • management of hours of work
    • maximum number of hours for a working shift
    • number and length of rest breaks in a shift
    • maximum number of hours to be worked in a roster cycle
  • work tasks and work environment affecting fatigue.

Non-work-related issues also need consideration (for example, family commitments or community impacts).

The system must also provide for protocols for other physical and psychological impairment for people at the mine.

Occasionally, the WHS Acts can express responsibility beyond the mining lease. For example, under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, section 23 (Duties of employers to other persons) states:

  1. An employer must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer.

This section was the subject of much debate during the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry. Subsequently, to remove any possible ambiguity, the Victorian Government introduced the requirement to develop and implement an approved work plan, which is a legal requirement for mining industry projects licensed under the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990, unless specifically exempted. From 1 January 2016, all required work plans must be risk-based; that is, a work plan must:

  • identify the risks that the activities may pose to the environment, to any member of the public, or to land or property in the vicinity of the activities
  • specify what the person who proposes to undertake the activity will do to eliminate or minimise those risks as far as is reasonably practicable.

CASE STUDY: The impact of WHS legislation on coal mining safety in Australia

Between 1991 and 2010, and despite a rapid expansion in Australian resources industries, there was a dramatic reduction in the numbers of coal mining fatalities in Australia. In all, 85 workers died over that period—65 in the first decade (1991 to 2000) and 20 in the next (2001 to 2010). Also, all six mine incidents causing multiple deaths across the 20-year period occurred in the earlier decade (mostly in underground mines), the worst being an explosion in the Moura no. 2 mine in central Queensland in 1994 that killed 11 men. In New South Wales, the incident causing the highest number of deaths was in 1996 in Gretley, where four men drowned following an inrush of water from old mine workings.

One factor implicated as driving this improvement in coal mining safety was the introduction in the late 1990s and 2000s of new WHS legislation governing coal mines in Queensland and New South Wales. This change represented a move from a compliance-based approach to a risk management approach to safety (Cliff 2012ab) and was triggered by the death of 36 men in three underground mining explosions in Moura (in 1975, 1986 and 1994). A subsequent inquiry into the last of those disasters, Moura no. 2 (Windridge 1996) generated a wide-ranging set of recommendations for Queensland coal mines that became the basis of Queensland’s Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 1999 (and subsequent Regulations introduced in 2001). One of the main elements of this Act was the implementation of risk assessment based mine safety management plans for principal hazards. At about the same time, a competency framework was introduced in Queensland to ensure that senior mine employees holding safety-critical (i.e. statutory) positions (including mine managers, electrical and mechanical engineering managers, and ventilation officers) had specified qualifications and competencies. New South Wales followed this legislative path, implementing the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act 2002, prompted by the Gretley disaster. In response to these changes, it is perhaps significant that all major mining incidents in Australia since 1996 have been in metalliferous mines (North Parkes, 1999; Bronzewing, 2000; Beaconsfield, 2006).

2.2.2 Health of workers

In order to effectively manage occupational illness and disease, it is important to monitor and control exposure to hazards that may cause illness and disease and also to monitor the outcomes of exposure. These are very different processes. In the mining industry, monitoring is undertaken as:

  • medical monitoring (outcome monitoring):
    • legislative requirement
    • company requirement
    • based on risk and/or job/task
  • workplace monitoring (exposure monitoring):
    • hazardous work areas
    • personal monitoring.

Medical monitoring through health surveillance is the ongoing systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of data for the purposes of improving health and safety. Surveillance refers to the compilation of data to track issues over a period of time for a group of workers. However, there is no comprehensive or central system of surveillance for occupational disease or illnesses, even though there are important sources of health data for workers in the minerals industry, including:

  • pre-employment medicals
  • ongoing health assessments
  • surveillance schemes.

In all Australian states, there are requirements for the health monitoring of workers exposed to occupational hazards. The extent of the requirements varies from state to state. In New South Wales and Queensland, there is currently provision for a centralised health surveillance program only for the coal mining industry. The NSW system is voluntary, whereas the minimum requirements of the Queensland system are regulated by legislation.

The Western Australian MineHealth system that commenced in 1996 ceased in January 2013. Two comprehensive epidemiological studies of the MineHealth database conducted in 2010 and 2012 showed that these assessments neither prevented nor detected ill-health at an early stage. The cessation of the MineHealth system allows the WA industry to apply a more risk-based approach to health surveillance. Employers are responsible for identifying the hazards in their workplaces, assessing the risks to workers’ health and wellbeing, and eliminating or mitigating those risks.

The use of workplace monitoring to determine the exposure to the potential health hazards in the minerals industry can be an effective management technique where there are well-established cause-and-effect and dose–response relationships. For many of these hazards, exposure standards exist as defined in Safe Work Australia’s Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants (2011). Exposure monitoring and the implementation of controls to manage the exposure of workers is a proactive approach to health management for these hazards.

CASE STUDY: NSW Health Management Plan

The NSW Health Working Party of the Mine Safety Advisory Council has developed a guide (DII 2009) to assist in the development of health management plans. The guide was developed to assist mine sites in understanding their obligations regarding occupational health management and to assist industry in raising its capacity to manage occupational health risks in the same systematic manner as it manages safety risks.

The model proposed includes:

  • communicating contemporary health issues to help industry identify health risks
  • embodying health requirements into a site health management plan that is integrated with the SHMS
  • establishing a system for reporting major health incidents and occurrences
  • clarifying and agreeing on role of the regulators, such as NSW DPI and Coal Services.

The overall approach is summarised in the figure below, which has been extracted from the guide (DII 2009:6).

Chart that shows summary of overall approach to assist in the development of health management plans

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