Mining has played an instrumental role in driving world economy forward. The industrial revolution in the 18th century was mainly sustained by extensive coal mining that provided impetus to the pace of development throughout the world. It still remains one of the biggest sources of electricity, accounting for over 40% of world electricity production. Mining has been at the heart of tapping the natural wealth of a country. Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area, is rich with innumerable natural resources and coal mining constitutes an integral part of hordes of natural wealth.
Unfortunately, despite the massive potential wealth, the mining industry in Balochistan is replete with many health hazards as born out of the recent statistics. From 2010 to May 2019, at least 414 coal miners were killed in about 93 accidents in the country. The year 2018 was one of the deadliest for coal miners as it witnessed the tragic death of 104 mine workers in the line work that constitutes their sole source of livelihood.
A large number of these accidents in Balochistan happened due to gas explosions resulting in fatal burn injuries and suffocation to death. In many instances the explosions also led to collapse of the mines. In the absolute absence of safety measures, conducting effective rescue operations becomes increasing difficult and by the time rescuers reach the hapless victims down in the dungeons of these dark mines, they are almost always found dead barring a few miracle discoveries here and there. In addition to this, if miners escape death luckily, they unfortunately cannot escape a wide array of health hazards such as asthma, pneumoconiosis, bronchitis, and other lung diseases.
Although mining has its attendant hazards and other safety risks, there are a number of precautionary methods that the provincial government can enforce to minimize these hazards as adumbrated below along with the major challenges prevalent in the mining sector.
Coal dust from coal mining is a common heath concern for miners that poses concerns for ‘miner’s lung’ or ‘black lung’, a lung disease called pneumoconiosis. In order to counter this, mining companies in Balochistan will have to develop a dust control plan, and supervisors should ensure that dust control systems are working properly for every production shift. Mine workers should be trained with regards to the deleterious effects of over-exposure to coal mine dust. Respiratory protection can be used along with medical screening and surveillance.
Besides coal dust, noise posits another threat to miners as mines can quite noisy, with the constant of drilling and heavy machinery, and the potential for hearing damage is quite serious and leads to sleep disturbances, concentration problems and even permanent hearing loss. Mining companies can evaluate working conditions and noise exposure through risk assessments so as to avoid and reduce exposure to constant noise by applying engineering controls at the noise source or along the noise path via vibration dampeners or absorptive panels. Besides, regular maintenance of machines is also essential to reducing noise. Proper use of personal hearing protection amongst noise-exposed workers must be ensured, while providing necessary health and safety training and maintaining duly updated health surveillance records.
As a natural corollary to working in deep mines, whole body vibration (WBV) poses another physical hazard to miners as they operate heavy machinery. Whole body vibration is typically caused due to extended periods of operating machinery for mining extraction. The whole body vibration makes workers susceptible to musculoskeletal disorders, reproductive damage, vision impairment, digestive problems, and cardiovascular changes. An effective guard towards countering whole body vibration lies in minimizing the transport of goods or materials and opting for unmanned machines such as remotely controlled conveyors.
Another hazard for miners is the presence of excessive exposure to ultraviolet exposure in the case of open-pit miners as exposure of ultraviolet rays can put miners at risk of skin cancer, besides causing melanomas on the body and cause severe damage to eyes if miners are not wearing protective eye wear. As a solution, mine contractors should need to conduct risk assessment on outdoor work schedules to assist in developing appropriate measures against over exposure to sun for mine workers. The most effective means towards reducing UV exposure is to use a combination of protection methods, like rescheduling work to avoid the ultraviolet peak hours and through natural or artificial shade, appropriate protective clothing, and applying sunscreen products.
Musculoskeletal disorders are next as threat to miners with problems affecting bones, muscles, blood vessels and nerves as mine workers are exposed to a variety of potential health. Musculoskeletal damage can occur due to a trip, fall or heavy lift. As a prevention mechanism contractors should identify and assess job-related musculoskeletal hazards and put in place controls to reduce workers’ exposure to these hazards. Furthermore, workers should be advised and trained about MSD hazards in their job and workplace and should be encouraged to participate in health and safety programs through early reporting of MSD symptoms or concerns to their supervisors.
As mining environments are often extremely hot and humid, thermal excess posits another risk for miners and overexposure to heat and humidity can make bodies more prove to fatigue and distress. This can result in heat stroke or more serious ongoing health problems. If there is a possibility of heat stress occurring, companies need to conduct a risk assessment that considers the work rate, working climate and worker clothing and respiratory protective equipment.
Finally, mine workers are often exposed to harmful chemicals. For instance, the most common group of chemicals that cause concern in a coal mining environment are polymeric chemicals and the risks include chemical burns, respiratory problems, and poisoning. All chemicals have a unique set of hazards and needs to be managed properly to ensure worker safety. As a safety precaution, companies must abide by standard operating procedures that address the use of correct personal protective equipment, safe handling, safe use and allowing ventilation in minimizing exposure to hazardous chemicals.
The provincial government in Balochistan can engage public and private enterprises to work hand in hand to set a monitoring mechanism to can guard against the exploitation of poor mining workers and help implement all health inspection protocols. Students like Ali Gul, who has recently built a smart helmet to detect presence of poisonous gases in coal mines, should be encouraged and taken on board to assist the government in this regard. If the above suggestions are given due consideration, mining accidents can be reduced to a minimum and maximum advantage can be obtained through effective mining of the natural wealth of the province which can boost the economy of the country in general, and herald an industrial boom for the Balochistan province in particular.