The coal industry and health

Coal mining [photo] Health is a priority for the South African coal mining industry. The South Africa coal mining industry is concerned about the overall health and well-being of employees, both in and outside the workplace. This holistic approach includes ensuring access to health care and the promotion of healthy living.

Occupational health programmes seek to prevent and mitigate occupational health risks, participate both permanent employees and the employees of service providers. Health programmes facilitate the analysis, monitoring and management of exposure, and provide preventative measures for a range of occupational health risks. The industry focuses on effective employee communication on risk and prevention. Rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes are also provided.

The South African coal mining industry promotes a healthy workforce through integrated health and wellness programmes. Wellness programmes, with an emphasis on lifestyle diseases, aim to reduce health risks, providing access to health care, and educating, informing and empowering employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Focus is on reducing lifestyle diseases (such as hypertension, diabetes and cholesterol levels), managing the risks of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, and effectively managing mental health conditions.

Occupational health issues

The primary occupational health concerns associated with coal mining in South Africa are:

  • dust-induced occupational lung diseases
  • noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)

The industry is guided by extensive health and safety legislation and regulations when dealing with occupational health. Government monitors and enforces compliance to health and safety measures at mines and audits and inspections are conducted to ensure compliance with legal provisions. The audits evaluate mine management systems for prevention of exposure of employees to noise and dust.

Dust-induced occupational lung diseases

Dust exposure in coal mines is a risk factor for occupational lung diseases such as coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung; chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD); and lung function deficiency.

Employee exposure varies considerably as some employees are continuously exposed while others are exposed for short periods of time. Measuring reliably is the key to understanding employees' exposure and to designing effective dust control. Dust sampling in the South African coal industry has been a legal requirement for several decades. Daily dust-suppression inspections take place at operations and reports are made to the DMR on dust levels as part of its policy to continuously monitor all operations.

Dust suppression systems are key to preventing the exposure of employees to unacceptable levels of dust. Water is the single most important factor that determines the successful and sustainable operation of a dust suppression system. Dust control is a complex combination of managing different aspects such as air flow, atomising water particles enabling coagulation of dust and mist, changing surface tension of water by adding a surfactant and creating the correct pressure through specific nozzles to enable coagulation.

Coal mining companies have been incorporating dust-suppression interventions and technology since the 1960s and have been at the forefront of developing new dust-suppression equipment and techniques in South Africa. The industry continuously explores and tests these innovations through research and development, and incorporates them into operations to enhance the safety and health of employees. Equipment such as continuous miners are remotely-controlled and contain dust-suppression technology, such as high-pressure water-spray systems and scrubbers.

Coal mining employees are equipped with appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE).

Operations are continuously ventilated, which contributes to a healthier working environment as large quantities of clean air enter the mine areas underground and dilute the dust concentration.

At an occupational health and safety summit in November 2016, mining industry stakeholders agreed that, by December 2024, 95% of all exposure measurement results of coal dust respirable particulate must be below the level of 1.5mg/m3 (<5% silica).

Noise induced hearing loss

Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) has been recognised as a major occupational health risk in the South African coal mining industry. Prolonged exposure to hazardous noise more than 85 dBA causes loss of hearing acuity, which occurs gradually.

Throughout the industry, emphasis is placed on noise suppression (that is silencing at the source) and hearing conservation. An important part of the latter is noise monitoring to prevent exposure, provision of PPE, and regular hearing tests.

Occupational health and safety targets were set by the Mine Health and Safety Council in 2014 with the aim of eliminating NIHL:

  • By December 2024, the total operational or process noise emitted by any equipment must not exceed a sound pressure level of 107 dBA.
  • By December 2016, no employee's Standard Threshold Shift will exceed 25 dB from the baseline when averaged at 2000, 3000 and 4000 Hz in one or both ears.

Public health issues

Public health issues affect the health and wellbeing of our employees outside of the workplace but also have the potential to impact safety and health in the workplace. The industry's holistic approach to health care endeavours to address both consequences of public health issues.

The primary public health issues in South Africa are:

  • Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB)
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Fatigue and substance abuse

Pulmonary tuberculosis

Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) has a high social and economic cost, both for the individuals concerned and for the whole industry. It is a serious opportunistic infection and is the leading cause of death for people living with HIV.

The coal mining industry's wellness programmes educate employees about TB and provides support for the management of the disease. The programmes are audited by government to evaluate improvements.

HIV/AIDS

The prevention, management and treatment of HIV/AIDS plays a critical role in the well-being of employees and communities – and is also key to sound economic and social development. The South African coal mining industry works together with government to address this issue.

Industry initiatives include HIV wellness programmes which educate employees about HIV/AIDS and its prevention; testing and counselling; and treatment programmes. The coal mining industry was in the forefront of rolling out antiretroviral therapy (ART) to employees. Programmes are audited by government to evaluate improvements.

Fatigue and substance abuse management

Employee fatigue is a critical safety issue affecting many mines in South Africa. Many high-profile accidents point to fatigue as a causal or contributory factor. Fatigue develops for many reasons including physically demanding work activities and an unhealthy lifestyle, which may include the abuse of alcohol and drugs. The industry has adopted a zero tolerance approach to drug abuse in the interests of all employees' safety.

The industry incorporates fatigue and substance abuse management into its mine safety management systems. Wellness programmes address the subjects of work fatigue and alcohol and drug abuse and emphasise the need the need for a healthy lifestyle.