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Sunday, 13 March 2011 14:50

Mining: An Overview

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Minerals and mineral products are the backbone of most industries. Some form of mining or quarrying is carried out in virtually every country in the world. Mining has important economic, environmental, labour and social effects—both in the countries or regions where it is carried out and beyond. For many developing countries mining accounts for a significant proportion of GDP and, often, for the bulk of foreign exchange earnings and foreign investment.

The environmental impact of mining can be significant and long-lasting. There are many examples of good and bad practice in the management and rehabilitation of mined areas. The environmental effect of the use of minerals is becoming an important issue for the industry and its workforce. The debate on global warming, for example, could affect the use of coal in some areas; recycling lessens the amount of new material required; and the increasing use of non-mineral materials, such as plastics, affects the intensity of use of metals and minerals per unit of GDP.

Competition, declining mineral grades, higher treatment costs, privatization and restructuring are each putting pressure on mining companies to reduce their costs and increase their productivity. The high capital intensity of much of the mining industry encourages mining companies to seek the maximum use of their equipment, calling in turn for more flexible and often more intensive work patterns. Employment is falling in many mining areas due to increased productivity, radical restructuring and privatization. These changes not only affect mineworkers who must find alternative employment; those remaining in the industry are required to have more skills and more flexibility. Finding the balance between the desire of mining companies to cut costs and those of workers to safeguard their jobs has been a key issue throughout the world of mining. Mining communities must also adapt to new mining operations, as well as to downsizing or closure.

Mining is often considered to be a special industry involving close-knit communities and workers doing a dirty, dangerous job. Mining is also a sector where many at the top—managers and employers—are former miners or mining engineers with wide, first-hand experience of the issues that affect their enterprises and workforces. Moreover, mineworkers have often been the elite of industrial workers and have frequently been at the forefront when political and social changes have taken place faster than was envisaged by the government of the day.

About 23 billion tonnes of minerals, including coal, are produced each year. For high-value minerals, the quantity of waste produced is many times that of the final product. For example, each ounce of gold is the result of dealing with about 12 tonnes of ore; each tonne of copper comes from about 30 tonnes of ore. For lower value materials (e.g., sand, gravel and clay)—which account for the bulk of the material mined—the amount of waste material that can be tolerated is minimal. It is safe to assume, however, that the world’s mines must produce at least twice the final amount required (excluding the removal of surface “overburden”, which is subsequently replaced and therefore handled twice). Globally, therefore, some 50 billion tonnes of ore are mined each year. This is the equivalent of digging a 1.5 metre deep hole the size of Switzerland every year.


Mining is not a major employer. It accounts for about 1% of the world’s workforce—some 30 million people, 10 million of whom produce coal. However, for every mining job there is at least one job that is directly dependent on mining. In addition, it is estimated that at least 6 million people not included in the above figure work in small-scale mines. When one takes dependants into account, the number of people relying on mining for a living is likely to be about 300 million.

Safety and Health

Mineworkers face a constantly changing combination of workplace circumstances, both daily and throughout the work shift. Some work in an atmosphere without natural light or ventilation, creating voids in the earth by removing material and trying to ensure that there will be no immediate reaction from the surrounding strata. Despite the considerable efforts in many countries, the toll of death, injury and disease among the world’s mineworkers means that, in most countries, mining remains the most hazardous occupation when the number of people exposed to risk is taken into account.

Although only accounting for 1% of the global workforce, mining is responsible for about 8% of fatal accidents at work (around 15,000 per year). No reliable data exist as far as injuries are concerned, but they are significant, as is the number of workers affected by occupational diseases (such as pneumoconioses, hearing loss and the effects of vibration) whose premature disability and even death can be directly attributed to their work.

The ILO and Mining

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been dealing with labour and social problems of the mining industry since its early days, making considerable efforts to improve work and life of those in the mining industry—from the adoption of the Hours of Work (Coal Mines) Convention (No. 31) in 1931 to the Safety and Health in Mines Convention (No. 176), which was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1995. For 50 years tripartite meetings on mining have addressed a variety of issues ranging from employment, working conditions and training to occupational safety and health and industrial relations. The results are over 140 agreed conclusions and resolutions, some of which have been used at the national level; others have triggered ILO action—including a variety of training and assistance programmes in member States. Some have led to the development of codes of safety practice and, most recently, to the new labour standard.

In 1996 a new system of shorter, more focused tripartite meetings was introduced, in which topical mining issues will be identified and discussed in order to address the issues in a practical way in the countries and regions concerned, at the national level and by the ILO. The first of these, in 1999, will deal with social and labour issues of small-scale mining.

Labour and social issues in mining cannot be separated from other considerations, whether they be economic, political, technical or environmental. While there can be no model approach to ensuring that the mining industry develops in a way that benefits all those involved, there is clearly a need that it should do so. The ILO is doing what it can to assist in the labour and social development of this vital industry. But it cannot work alone; it must have the active involvement of the social partners in order to maximize its impact. The ILO also works closely with other international organizations, bringing the social and labour dimension of mining to their attention and collaborating with them as appropriate.

Because of the hazardous nature of mining, the ILO has been always deeply concerned with the improvement of occupational safety and health. The ILO’s International Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconioses is an internationally recognized tool for recording systematically radiographic abnormalities in the chest provoked by the inhalation of dusts. Two codes of practice on safety and health deal exclusively with underground and surface mines; others are relevant to the mining industry.

The adoption of the Convention on Safety and Health in Mines in 1995, which has set the principle for national action on the improvement of working conditions in the mining industry, is important because:

  • Special hazards are faced by mineworkers.
  • The mining industry in many countries is assuming increasing importance.
  • Earlier ILO standards on occupational safety and health, as well as the existing legislation in many countries, are inadequate to deal with the specific needs of mining.


The first two ratifications of the Convention occurred in mid-1997; it will enter into force in mid-1998.


In recent years the ILO has carried out a variety of training projects aimed at improving the safety and health of miners through greater awareness, improved inspection and rescue training. The ILO’s activities to date have contributed to progress in many countries, bringing national legislation into conformity with international labour standards and raising the level of occupational safety and health in the mining industry.

Industrial relations and employment

The pressure to improve productivity in the face of intensified competition can sometimes result in basic principles of freedom of association and collective bargaining being called into question when enterprises perceive that their profitability or even survival is in doubt. But sound industrial relations based on the constructive application of those principles can make an important contribution to productivity improvement. This issue was examined at length at a meeting in 1995. An important point to emerge was the need for close consultation between the social partners for any necessary restructuring to be successful and for the mining industry as a whole to obtain lasting benefits. Also, it was agreed that new flexibility of work organization and work methods should not jeopardize workers’ rights, nor adversely affect health and safety.

Small-scale Mining

Small-scale mining falls into two broad categories. The first is the mining and quarrying of industrial and construction materials on a small scale, operations that are mostly for local markets and present in every country (see figure 1). Regulations to control and tax them are often in place but, as for small manufacturing plants, lack of inspection and lax enforcement mean that informal or illegal operations persist.

Figure 1. Small-scale stone quarry in West Bengal


The second category is the mining of relatively high-value minerals, notably gold and precious stones (see figure 2). The output is generally exported, through sales to approved agencies or through smuggling. The size and character of this type of small-scale mining have made what laws there are inadequate and impossible to apply.

Figure 2. Small-scale gold mine in Zimbabwe


Small-scale mining provides considerable employment, particularly in rural areas. In some countries, many more people are employed in small-scale, often informal, mining than in the formal mining sector. The limited data that exist suggest that upwards of six million people engage in small-scale mining. Unfortunately, however, many of these jobs are precarious and are far from conforming with international and national labour standards. Accident rates in small-scale mines are routinely six of seven times higher than in larger operations, even in industrialized countries. Illnesses, many due to unsanitary conditions are common at many sites. This is not to say that there are no safe, clean, small-scale mines—there are, but they tend to be a small minority.

A special problem is the employment of children. As part of its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, the ILO is undertaking projects in several countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to provide educational opportunities and alternative income-generating prospects to remove children from coal, gold and gemstone mines in three regions in these countries. This work is being coordinated with the international mineworkers union (ICEM) and with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government agencies.

NGOs have also worked hard and effectively at the local level to introduce appropriate technologies to improve efficiency and mitigate the health and environmental impact of small-scale mining. Some international governmental organizations (IGOs) have undertaken studies and developed guidelines and programmes of action. These address child labour, the role of women and indigenous people, taxation and land title reform, and environmental impact but, so far, they appear to have had little discernible effect. It should be noted, however, that without the active support and participation of governments, the success of such efforts is problematic.

Also, for the most part, there seems to be little interest among small-scale miners in using cheap, readily-available and effective technology to mitigate health and environmental effects, such as retorts to recapture mercury. There is often no incentive to do so, since the cost of mercury is not a constraint. Moreover, particularly in the case of itinerant miners, there is frequently no long-term interest in preserving the land for use after the mining has ceased. The challenge is to show small-scale miners that there are better ways to go about their mining that would not unduly constrain their activities and be better for them in terms of health and wealth, better for the land and better for the country. The “Harare Guidelines”, developed at the 1993 United Nations Interregional Seminar on Guidelines for the Development of Small/Medium Scale Mining, provide guidance for governments and for development agencies in tackling the different issues in a complete and coordinated way. The absence of involvement by employers’ and workers’ organizations in most small-scale mining activity puts a special responsibility on the government in bringing small-scale mining into the formal sector, an action that would improve the lot of small-scale miners and markedly increase the economic and social benefits of small-scale mining. Also, at an international roundtable in 1995 organized by the World Bank, a strategy for artisanal mining that aims to minimize negative side effects—including poor safety and health conditions of this activity—and maximize the socio-economic benefits was developed.

The Safety and Health in Mines Convention and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 183) set out in detail an internationally agreed benchmark to guide national law and practice. It covers all mines, providing a floor—the minimum safety requirement against which all changes in mine operations should be measured. The provisions of the Convention are already being included in new mining legislation and in collective agreements in several countries and the minimum standards it sets are exceeded by the safety and health regulations already promulgated in many mining countries. It remains for the Convention to be ratified in all countries (ratification would give it the force of law), to ensure that the appropriate authorities are properly staffed and funded so that they can monitor the implementation of the regulations in all sectors of the mining industry. The ILO will also monitor the application of the Convention in countries that ratify it.



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