Top health & safety risks in the mining industry

The leading causes of occupational ill-health and injury in the mining and quarrying industry are:

  • Moving vehicles
  • Manual handling / musculoskeletal injuries
  • Falls from heights
  • Rockfall/fall of sides
  • Vibration 
  • Noise
  • Dust
  • Explosives

Quarrying is recognised as one of the most hazardous industries to work in, with a higher rate of incidents than construction and manufacturing industries. 

Sheer rock faces coupled with the routine use of explosives and heavy moving machinery create a working environment in which effective management of risks is essential if serious injury is to be avoided.

We’ve consulted various industry papers and expert blogs to compile a list of the top health & safety risks facing operators in this industry, along with suggestions for preventative measures. 

SAFETY RISK #1 - MOVING VEHICLES

Cause:

According to HSE figures, accidents involving vehicles are the number one safety risk in quarries, accounting for approximately 40% of all accidents in this industry. Accidents usually stem from poorly maintained vehicles and roads and a lack of restraint systems.

Prevention:

Training, planning and the use of appropriate and well-maintained vehicles can avoid most accidents. Keep people and vehicles apart, provide all-round visibility for operators of vehicles, secure loads and avoid the need to work at height on vehicles where possible. Roads within the mine area should also be sufficiently wide, rolled smooth and cleaned regularly, be designed with a suitable gradient, be kept wetted and have designated pedestrian crossing points.

SAFETY RISK #2 - MUSCULOSKELETAL INJURIES 

Causes:

Musculoskeletal injuries can be caused by operating heavy quarry equipment, the manual shovelling of earth, clay and shales, and the lifting and carrying heavy stones.

Prevention:

Good posture and lifting techniques, along with mechanical lifting aids, can help reduce the risks. Still, research indicates that making changes to workplace design is the most effective way to prevent manual handling injuries. Automation is critical, as it has the potential to minimise manual handling whilst also bringing productivity benefits. For tasks that cannot be handled by machinery, staff should be trained to carry out their work safely.

SAFETY RISK #3 - FALLS FROM HEIGHTS 

Causes: 

Working at height (on plant or benches) is a major risk factor in quarrying. Fall hazards exist where personnel work without appropriate access and/or work platforms such as stairs and ladder ways, handrails and kickboards. Fall hazards also exist where workers are outside of or lean out over platforms and handrails.

Prevention: 

Site operators should ensure suitable control measures are in place to protect people (and machines) from falling from faces (edge protection, safe working practices for drilling and charging in rock quarries, etc.). In addition, suitable working platforms should be used to conduct work at heights. Fall prevention equipment such as harnesses should be provided with appropriate anchoring devices. Ladders should be fixed and only used to climb up to and descend from a work area.

SAFETY RISK #4 - ROCKFALL/FALL FROM SIDES

Causes:

While the primary hazard is that of workers or equipment falling over the edge of a bench, working near or under unstable ground also carries a high risk. Several factors increase the likelihood of rockfall and instability: weak rock, bedding, joints, structures, blast damage, vehicle vibrations, crest loss, adverse weather, or inadequate design.

Prevention:

The Quarries Regulations 1999 (QR) require quarry tips and excavations to be designed, constructed, operated and maintained to be safe.

Ensure that overall slope angles of benches are not too steep, unmanageable heights are not created, and the benches are of a sensible width and height. Loose sides should be properly dressed, no undercutting of face and sides should occur, and no trees, loose stone, or debris should remain close to the edge or side of any excavation. Rock traps and crest standoffs should be considered as part of the design.

Regular workplace inspections should be conducted to identify potential “hot spots” of wall movement or instability. Remove overhangs, loose material and other face hazards by blasting, scaling or cleaning faces.

SAFETY RISK #5 - VIBRATION 

Causes: 

Large shocks and jolts induced by whole-body vibration (WBV) can cause health risks, including back pain. In quarrying operations, driving mobile machines over rough and uneven surfaces or working near powerful machinery such as a rock crusher may expose workers to WBV.

Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) can be a problem with the hand-operated drills used for boring small diameter holes. The repetitive vibration from power tools can severely damage workers’ nerves and blood vessels and affect dexterity and grasp if untreated.

Prevention:

Avoid using under-sized or under-powered machines, choose machines with lower vibration levels and seek guidance from vehicle suppliers on lower vibration operation. Ensure mobile plant is regularly serviced, especially shock absorbers, cab mountings, tires and seats. Train operators to set seats correctly (incorrect seat adjustment is frequently a source of unnecessary vibration) and replace seat suspension components (especially the damper) when necessary. 

Ensure fixed plant is isolated from vibration sources, for example, by using rubber anti-vibration mounts and utilising remote plant control cabins away from the vibration source.

SAFETY RISK #6 - NOISE

Causes:

Quarries are heavily populated with noisy equipment, from moving machines such as wheel loaders and dump trucks to fixed plant such as heaters, screening equipment, crushers, saws, drilling rigs and compressors. Repetitive and excessive noise level of 85 dB(A) and above can cause significant hearing impairment, which can lead to deafness.

Prevention: 

Solutions range from enclosures around individual pieces of equipment, such as controlling noise in saw shops to reducing the use of sound-radiating surfaces like plate metal. On pneumatic drill rigs, insulation and covers around engines and fans can significantly reduce noise levels, and in vehicles, soundproofing of the driver’s cab can keep exposures well below 85 dB(A). With crushing and milling equipment, resilient mountings, chute linings, acoustic curtains, lagging and covers can bring about valuable reductions in noise levels. 

However, in many cases, noise exposure can only be reduced to an acceptable level by housing the operator in a control cabin. With hand-drills, the fitting of mufflers to the body and dampers to the moil point can achieve reductions in the order of 6-7 DB. 

SAFETY RISK #7 - DUST

Causes:

Whilst dust is present in all quarrying and mining operations, it is the smaller respirable dust particles that are often not visible to the naked eye that is the greatest cause for concern. Workers in the quarrying industry are particularly at risk of exposure to silica, which occurs in sand, clays, muds, shale, and rocks and can lead to serious respiratory illnesses.

Prevention:

There are three ways of managing dust: containment, collection, or suppression. Containment measures could include installing screens on crushing machinery or enclosing processing equipment. During transportation, vehicle loads should be covered, and during unloading, deflectors and reduced drop heights can minimise the risk. Spray systems and wet dust suppression systems can be deployed at various locations to keep material damp. In addition, processes such as wet drilling prevent dust generation.

Workers should wear adequate PPE and properly clean down before removing PPE, taking breaks or going home. De-dusting equipment is recommended to remove dust from personnel and clothing.

SAFETY RISK #8: EXPLOSIVES

Causes:

By virtue of their nature, explosives have the potential for the most serious and catastrophic accidents in the mining industry. Poorly designed shots can result in misfires, early ignition and flying rock. 

Prevention

The use of explosives is specialised work that should only be carried out by authorised and trained blasters. How the shot firing is undertaken is set out in the blasting specification and the shot firing rules. Surveying the face, correct blast hole geometry, wetting of the blast site, safe storage and transfer of explosives are but a few of the steps necessary to ensure the safe use of explosives.

Sources: 

www.hse.gov.uk

www.hsa.ie

www.qnjac.co.uk

www.agg-net.com

www.safequarry.com