Mining safety has always been a contentious issue in the mining industry. With the rise of the use of rare mined minerals for commodities and tech gadgets, as well as the looming shortages ahead, comes a more aggressive mining industry striving to meet sharply rising demands.
Although mining is one of the world’s oldest occupations, there is often a common misconception that it is a hazardous trade. Against popular belief, mining is in fact safer than most occupations including forestry, agriculture, fishing, and construction, to name a few. Over the past four decades and counting, rigorous standards for mining operations continue to revolutionize mine safety. North America stands out as the pack leader of mining safety, enforcing influential key laws that demand stricter requirements to avoid injuries and loss of lives, as well as environmental hazards.
Leading The Way
North American companies operating in developing countries, like GoldCorp, abide by North American mining safety standards even when there is a lack of government oversight and safety enforcement within their countries of operation. This consequently heralds better mining conditions by spreading best practices and high safety standards in countries with lackluster existing frameworks for mining safety. For companies that do so such as GoldCorp, they are able minimize the occurrence of catastrophic accidents in their mines within their countries, ensuring smooth mining operations.
Recent legal strides in mining safety holds not only mining companies accountable for the safety of their crew, but also the miners themselves. West Virginia’s Coal Jobs and Safety Act, for instance, passed by its House of Delegates, mandates drug testing to reduce the chance of miners coming to work compromised. This law also inadvertently increases the probability for the effective escape of vehicles under ground in the event of an emergency.
West Virginia’s government is not the only entity taking a hard look at the entire mining industry landscape and deciding risks are still too high to ignore changes that can be imposed by strict and carefully crafted legislations. In the United States, Canada and all over the globe, governments and other organizations are taking a detailed look at the dangers of mining and zeroing in on better ways to address them.
In Canada, the mining industry is hotter than ever. Over the past couple of years alone, Canada quickly rose to become one of the world’s largest producers of metals and minerals, contributing over $54 billion to its GDP in 2013. With a starting average salary of $86,000 per annum, Canada’s billion dollar mining industry attracts more and more workers, opening more and more mining operations in its territories and in the global arena. This growth lead to stricter requirements for Canadian mining companies.
Recently, three federal acts, namely – the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act have all been amended to enforce rigorous standards for mine sites, ensuring increased safety of workers as well as the environment. A review of the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations is also underway.
Entering the Digital Age
The US Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration is taking the fight online in 2015 with two new tools designed to help track and report violations that often end in fatalities. These digital tools aims to draw attention to MSHA’s Fatality Prevention “Rules to Live By” and track the number of past violations in specific mines, as well as compliance standards regarding hazardous conditions.
These lists of rules and standards have a high impact on the safety of particular mines (these rules apply to coal as well as metal and nonmetal mines), so MSHA is hoping that providing opportunity to track compliance will help mining operators get a good view of where they fall short, and hopefully shore up safety operations where they are lacking to drastically increase the safety in their mines and make day to day operations as risk-free as possible.
Respirable Dust Rule
Since the 1970s, the mining industry made leaps and strides to eradicate Black Lung disease. To date, the disease is about 90 percent eradicated, marking an enormous improvement.
Black lung disease has an infamous reputation in the mining industry, the death toll up to 76,000 since 1968, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, with over $45 billion given out in federal compensation. This disease, which affects the lungs of miners who regularly inhale coal dust over the course of years, leads to coughs, shortness of breath, and obstructed airways, gradually decreasing quality of life and often leading to death.
While the disease is close to being fully stamped out in the mining industry, MSHA put a rule into effect in August 2014 to lower the acceptable concentration of harmful respirable coal particles in a mining environment, in an effort to improve quality of life for coal miners. While there is still work left to be done to fully eradicate Black Lung disease, the new act ensures the mining industry continues to move towards the right direction.
The rule will be completely phased in throughout 2015 and 2016, and aims to result in safer conditions for coal miners in North America. With North America setting better safety standards for mining industries, the world will soon follow.
Coal Mine Methane
Just recently, explosion in a Ukrainian coal mine tragically resulted in the death of 33 workers and injured many others. The most likely explanation was a buildup of methane, triggering the fatal explosion. Unfortunately, this is not a unique phenomenon – this is actually a common occurrence. The process of removing coal from the mine face, usually leads to the abrupt release of previously trapped methane gas into the air, creating a dangerous mix of gases that can, ignite, explode and cause catastrophic fatalities.
In an effort to combat this, the World Coal Association explains two main techniques of removing methane from a mine before it builds up to dangerous levels: ventilation and drilling. While the technology is not new in 2015, this year is seeing an increased pressure on taking this matter seriously. The United Nations has recently published a best practice methane draining manual in Spanish, and is putting forth drafts in Mongolian and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. A 2014/2015 work plan on enhancing the safety of coal mines using methane drilling is currently under way and will soon be put into effect.
Increasingly, mining safety focuses not only on safety for the miners themselves, but for the surrounding landscape and the environment as a whole. Among many, many others, the dangers of mining includes various sensitive facets including, radioactive waste, air and water pollutants, sedimentation of rivers and streams, topsoil removal, groundwater contamination, plant growth inhibition, fish kills, and can lead to human diseases.
In response to this, the 2015 mining industry will likely see increased state efforts toward combating environmental pollutants than wide-sweeping federal regulations. Nowhere is this highlighted so well than in the battle taking place in Minnesota between U.S. Steel and its opponents, who want to protect water in general and the water where wild rice grows in particular.
Although the jury is still out, it seems likely that U.S. Steel will have to conform to significantly higher standards than it had in past years, providing a much higher degree of safety for the surrounding environment thus setting the standard for other battles on a state scale.
Many places around the world do not hold the high standards of developed countries like Canada and the United States. The MSHA offers a list of countries that have well-developed safety standards, but a number of these countries that do not are working to change for the better. This year (2015) and later years will no doubt see effective leaps toward worker health and environmental safety, both inside and outside Canada and the U.S.
Yvan Dionne is the founder and president of PROMINE, a geological modeling and mine planning software company.