As one of the larger mining nations on the planet, Canada ranks in the top five worldwide for extraction of 14 major metals and minerals; including potash, uranium, niobium, aluminum, cobalt, tungsten, platinum, nickel, salt, sulphur, titanium, diamonds, cadmium and gold. And, as such, the country is also a leader in EHS (Environmental Health and Safety), and fortunately, it hasn’t had a major mining accident since 1992.
Yet, despite this relatively good track record, Canadian mine workers still face threats to health and safety from other, more subtle factors on the job; with one part of the body under constant attack – the skin.
In fact, according to the European Agency for Safety & Health at Work (EU-OSHA), mine workers have the highest incidence of skin disease among all professions.
Cases of allergic dermatitis, contact dermatitis and skin cancer affect almost one-third (31.5 per cent) of full-time miners, EU-OSHA says – more than manufacturing and construction workers put together. And the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) notes that skin problems are 78 per cent more common among mine workers than respiratory illnesses.
So, how can mine owners and operators, and the miners themselves, do a better job at safeguarding against skin issues? To start with, let’s have a look at the potential risks and talk about ways to protect everybody from this threat.
The Biggest Irritants
Mine workers regularly come into contact industrial solvents, cleaning products and Portland cement – all of which can cause contact dermatitis and other uncomfortable skin conditions. They also can experience allergic reactions from exposure to poison ivy and oak, epoxy resins, nickel, chromates and acrylics commonly found around mine sites.
It’s estimated that about seventy-five per cent of workers with occupational dermatitis ultimately develop chronic skin diseases that are uncomfortable and costly to treat, BLS says. A single case of occupational dermatitis can cost an employer, on average, US $3,500 in workers’ compensation claims, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
One threat to the skin, however, quite literally outshines all others for the many mine and quarry labourers who work outdoors – the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays.
While underground miners don’t face as high of a risk, open-cut mine and quarry workers (and especially those involved in exploration and drilling) spend most of their time outdoors, where UV radiation can constitute a significant health hazard.
Outdoor workers are exposed to six to eight times as much UV radiation than indoor workers, according to Alberta Prevents Cancer’s BeSunsible program, making them up to 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancers. A melanoma patient misses an average of 28 days of work, according to the Canadian Skin Care Foundation, and those affected with less-aggressive forms of skin cancer miss an average of 14 days.
Exposure to the UV rays can lead to painful sunburns, premature aging and skin cancer. While UVA rays activate melatonin in the skin and help it darken in response to sunlight, UVB rays are more damaging. A sunburn is the sign of overexposure to UVB light, and the risk of developing skin cancer – the most commonly- occurring cancer worldwide – accumulates over a person’s lifetime with every burn. While light-complected people are more likely to develop skin cancers, no one is completely safe.
Recognizing the Risk
By recognizing potential risks – even those that are easily prevented – safety professionals can safeguard employees against incidents that cause the most harm. The prevalence of UV-caused skin irritation among miners and quarry workers serves as an important lesson in the management of all safety risks.
A mine or quarry likely carries some risk of UV overexposure, particularly in the summer months. Employers should conduct an assessment to gather information about work areas and potential UV exposures, taking note of existing shade at the site as well as surfaces that reflect sunlight such as water, sand, rock, concrete and corrugated steel, which magnify the threat.
The employer or a nominated employee representative can perform a walk-through to assess UV risk, identify employees who may be at higher risk of exposure, and the tasks and systems that create that risk. The risk assessment can then inform a plan to control exposure to UV light that includes the use of shade, procedural measures and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Sophisticated software tools are available to help companies mitigate these risks. For instance, a good Risk Analysis solution can greatly simplify the task of while compliance and training management tools make it easy for an EHS professional to spot gaps in compliance and ensure consistent training across his or her organization. Today, a comprehensive EHS management platform can provide all of these tools in a single solution.
Take inventory of the protective clothing available, and issue or encourage use of additional sun protection. The clothing required may be as simple as a broadbrimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt with a tight weave; protections must also include a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen, SPF 15+ lip balm, and UV-blocking sunglasses.
Remember that sunscreen needs to be water- and sweat-resistant – depending on the work to be performed; and clothing should limit UV exposure, but not present a secondary hazard. Loose clothing, for example, can be dangerous to wear around operating machinery.
Protection as Prevention
In Canada, employers must provide the information, instruction and supervision necessary to protect workers’ health and safety. Since many mines and quarries are operated on a seasonal basis, operators are encouraged to arrange safety meetings and refresher courses for temporary workers at the beginning of each season.
Educate employees on the dangers of UV radiation and your company’s strategy to control exposure. Make use of natural and artificial shade (such as temporary canopies or shelters) whenever possible, schedule alternative tasks during peak-sun hours, and increase the length and frequency of breaks to reduce UV exposure.
Supervisors should take reasonable precautions to inform workers about potential or actual hazards, ensure that workers are trained for the work they do, and confirm they use PPE and other protections according to manufacturer specifications.
Employers should provide appropriate products for use, and are advised to post a copy of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) on-site.
Mine workers do carry some responsibility for their own protection. They would rarely begin the day without steeltoed shoes, helmets and additional PPE, and once educated about the risks of UV light, they should take the same attitude toward skin protection, repair and restoration products including sunblocks and healing creams.
Occupational skin irritations and diseases aren’t just unpleasant; they can lead to poor morale and absenteeism, which slashes productivity and adds to costs. Companies can also lose income if skin disease leads to prolonged absences from work. Employers must minimize the risk of skin irritation, sunburn and skin cancer to avert missed workdays and claims that can result.
Nobody wants to suffer a painful sunburn (or worse) on the job, but employees may not realize that a greater threat lies underneath that redness and sting. Inform employees about the long-term risks associated with UV exposure, and you’ll help them avoid more serious problems in the future.
Matt Airhart is president of VelocityEHS Canada, a cloud EHS software company.