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Sunday, 13 March 2011 16:50

Health Hazards of Mining and Quarrying

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The principal airborne hazards in the mining industry include several types of particulates, naturally occurring gases, engine exhaust and some chemical vapours; the principal physical hazards are noise, segmental vibration, heat, changes in barometric pressure and ionizing radiation. These occur in varying combinations depending on the mine or quarry, its depth, the composition of the ore and surrounding rock, and the method(s) of mining. Among some groups of miners who live together in isolated locations, there is also risk of transmitting some infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis (B and E), and the human-immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Miners’ exposure varies with the job, its proximity to the source of hazards and the effectiveness of hazard control methods.

Airborne Particulate Hazards

Free crystalline silica is the most abundant compound in the earth’s crust and, consequently, is the most common airborne dust that miners and quarry-workers face. Free silica is silicon dioxide that is not chemically bonded with any other compound as a silicate. The most common form of silica is quartz although it can also appear as trydimite or christobalite. Respirable particles are formed whenever silica-bearing rock is drilled, blasted, crushed or otherwise pulverized into fine particles. The amount of silica in different species of rock varies but is not a reliable indicator of how much respirable silica dust may be found in an air sample. It is not uncommon, for example, to find 30% free silica in a rock but 10% in an air sample, and vice versa. Sandstone can be up to 100% silica, granite up to 40%, slate, 30%, with lesser proportions in other minerals. Exposure can occur in any mining operation, surface or underground, where silica is found in the overburden of a surface mine or the ceiling, floor or ore deposit of an underground mine. Silica can be dispersed by the wind, by vehicular traffic or by earth-moving machinery.

With sufficient exposure, silica can cause silicosis, a typical pneumoconiosis that develops insidiously after years of exposure. Exceptionally high exposure can cause acute or accelerated silicosis within months with significant impairment or death occurring within a few years. Exposure to silica is also associated with an increased risk of tuberculosis, lung cancer and of some autoimmune diseases, including scleroderma, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. Freshly fractured silica dust appears to be more reactive and more hazardous than old or stale dust. This may be a consequence of a relatively higher surface charge on freshly formed particles.

The most common processes that produce respirable silica dust in mining and quarrying are drilling, blasting and cutting silica-containing rock. Most holes drilled for blasting are done with an air powered percussion drill mounted on a tractor crawler. The hole is made with a combination of rotation, impact and thrust of the drill bit. As the hole deepens, steel drill rods are added to connect the drill bit to the power source. Air not only powers the drilling, it also blows the chips and dust out of the hole which, if uncontrolled, injects large amounts of dust into the environment. The hand-held jack-hammer or sinker drill operates on the same principle but on a smaller scale. This device conveys a significant amount of vibration to the operator and with it, the risk of vibration white finger. Vibration white finger has been found among miners in India, Japan, Canada and elsewhere. The track drill and the jack-hammer are also used in construction projects where rock must be drilled or broken to make a highway, to break rock for a foundation, for road repair work and other purposes.

Dust controls for these drills have been developed and are effective. A water mist, sometimes with a detergent, is injected into the blow air which helps the dust particles to coalesce and drop out. Too much water results in a bridge or collar forming between the drill steel and the side of the hole. These often have to be broken in order to remove the bit; too little water is ineffective. Problems with this type of control include reduction in the drilling rate, lack of reliable water supply and displacement of oil resulting in increased wear on lubricated parts.

The other type of dust control on drills is a type of local exhaust ventilation. Reverse air-flow through the drill steel withdraws some of the dust and a collar around the drill bit with ductwork and a fan to remove the dust. These perform better than the wet systems described above: drill bits last longer and the drilling rate is higher. However, these methods are more expensive and require more maintenance.

Other controls that provide protection are cabs with filtered and possibly air-conditioned air supply for drill operators, bulldozer operators and vehicle drivers. The appropriate respirator, correctly fitted, may be used for worker protection as a temporary solution or if all others prove to be ineffective.

Silica exposure also occurs at stone quarries that must cut the stone to specified dimensions. The most common contemporary method of cutting stone is with the use of a channel burner fuelled by diesel fuel and compressed air. This results in some silica particulate. The most significant problem with channel burners is the noise: when the burner is first ignited and when it emerges from a cut, sound level can exceed 120 dBA. Even when it is immersed in a cut, noise is around 115 dBA. An alternative method of cutting stone is to use very high-pressure water.

Often attached to or nearby a stone quarry is a mill where pieces are sculpted into a more finished product. Unless there is very good local exhaust ventilation, exposure to silica can be high because vibrating and rotating hand tools are used to shape the stone into the desired form.

Respirable coal mine dust is a hazard in underground and surface coal mines and in coal-processing facilities. It is a mixed dust, consisting mostly of coal, but can also include silica, clay, limestone and other mineral dusts. The composition of coal mine dust varies with the coal seam, the composition of the surrounding strata and mining methods. Coal mine dust is generated by blasting, drilling, cutting and transporting coal.

More dust is generated with mechanized mining than with manual methods, and some methods of mechanized mining produce more dust than others. Cutting machines that remove coal with rotating drums studded with picks are the principal sources of dust in mechanized mining operations. These include so-called continuous miners and longwall mining machines. Longwall mining machines usually produce larger amounts of dust than do other methods of mining. Dust dispersion can also occur with the movement of shields in longwall mining and with the transfer of coal from a vehicle or conveyor belt to some other means of transport.

Coal mine dust causes coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) and contributes to the occurrence of chronic airways disease such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Coal of high rank (e.g., high carbon content such as anthracite) is associated with a higher risk of CWP. There are some rheumatoid-like reactions to coal mine dust as well.

The generation of coal mine dust can be reduced by changes in coal cutting techniques and its dispersion can be controlled with the use of adequate ventilation and water sprays. If the speed of rotation of cutting drums is reduced and the tram speed (the speed with which the drum advances into the coal seam) is increased, dust generation can be reduced without losses in productivity. In longwall mining, dust generation can be reduced by cutting coal in one pass (rather than two) across the face and tramming back without cutting or by a clean-up cut. Dust dispersion on longwall sections can be reduced with homotropal mining (i.e., the chain-conveyor at the face, the cutter head and the air all travelling in the same direction). A novel method of cutting coal, using an eccentric cutter head that continuously cuts perpendicular to the grain of a deposit, seems to generate less dust than the conventional circular cutting head.

Adequate mechanical ventilation flowing first over a mining crew and then to and across the mining face can reduce exposure. Auxiliary local ventilation at the working face, using a fan with ductwork and scrubber, can also reduce exposure by providing local exhaust ventilation.

Water sprays, strategically placed close to the cutterhead and forcing dust away from the miner and towards the face, also assist in reducing exposure. Surfactants provide some benefit in reducing the concentration of coal dust.

Asbestos exposure occurs among asbestos miners and in other mines where asbestos is found in the ore. Among miners throughout the world, exposure to asbestos has elevated the risk of lung cancer and of mesothelioma. It has also elevated the risk of asbestosis (another pneumoconiosis) and of airways disease.

Diesel engine exhaust is a complex mixture of gases, vapours and particulate matter. The most hazardous gases are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. There are many volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as aldehydes and unburned hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and nitro-PAH compounds (N-PAHs). PAH and N-PAH compounds are also adsorbed onto diesel particulate matter. Nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and aldehydes are all acute respiratory irritants. Many of the PAH and N-PAH compounds are carcinogenic.

Diesel particulate matter consists of small diameter (<1 mm in diameter) carbon particles that are condensed from the exhaust fume and often aggregate in air in clumps or strings. These particles are all respirable. Diesel particulate matter and other particles of similar size are carcinogenic in laboratory animals and appear to increase the risk of lung cancer in exposed workers at concentrations above about 0.1 mg/m3. Miners in underground mines experience exposure to diesel particulate matter at significantly higher levels. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers diesel particulate matter to be a probable carcinogen.

The generation of diesel exhaust can be reduced by engine design and with high-quality, clean and low-sulphur fuel. De-rated engines and fuel with a low cetane number and low sulphur content produce less particulate matter. Use of low sulphur fuel reduces the generation of SO2 and of particulate matter. Filters are effective and feasible and can remove more than 90% of diesel particulate matter from the exhaust stream. Filters are available for engines without scrubbers and for engines with either water or dry scrubbers. Carbon monoxide can be significantly reduced with a catalytic converter. Nitrogen oxides form whenever nitrogen and oxygen are under conditions of high pressure and temperature (i.e., inside the diesel cylinder) and, consequently, they are more difficult to eliminate.

The concentration of dispersed diesel particulate matter can be reduced in an underground mine by adequate mechanical ventilation and restrictions on the use of diesel equipment. Any diesel powered vehicle or other machine will require a minimum amount of ventilation to dilute and remove the exhaust products. The amount of ventilation depends on the size of the engine and its uses. If more than one diesel powered piece of equipment is operating in one air course, ventilation will have to be increased to dilute and remove the exhaust.

Diesel powered equipment may increase the risk of fire or explosion since it emits a hot exhaust, with flame and sparks, and its high surface temperatures may ignite any accumulated coal dust or other combustible material. Surface temperature of diesel engines have to be kept below 305 °F (150 °C) in coal mines in order to prevent the combustion of coal. Flame and sparks from the exhaust can be controlled by a scrubber to prevent ignition of coal dust and of methane.

Gases and Vapours

Table 1 lists gases commonly found in mines. The most important naturally occurring gases are methane and hydrogen sulphide in coal mines and radon in uranium and other mines. Oxygen deficiency is possible in either. Methane is combustible. Most coal mine explosions result from ignitions of methane and are often followed by more violent explosions caused by coal dust that has been suspended by the shock of the original explosion. Throughout the history of coal mining, fires and explosions have been the principal cause of death of thousands of miners. Risk of explosion can be reduced by diluting methane to below its lower explosive limit and by prohibiting potential ignition sources in the face areas, where the concentration is usually the highest. Dusting the mine ribs (wall), floor and ceiling with incombustible limestone (or other silica-free incombustible rock dust) helps to prevent dust explosions; if dust suspended by the shock of a methane explosion is not combustible, a secondary explosion will not occur.

Table 1. Common names and health effects of hazardous gases occurring in coal mines


Common name

Health effects

Methane (CH4)

Fire damp

Flammable, explosive; simple asphyxiation

Carbon monoxide (CO)

White damp

Chemical asphyxiation

Hydrogen sulphide (H2S)

Stink damp

Eye, nose, throat irritation; acute respiratory depression

Oxygen deficiency

Black damp


Blasting by-products

After damp

Respiratory irritants

Diesel engine exhaust


Respiratory irritant; lung cancer


Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has been found in uranium mines, tin mines and some other mines. It has not been found in coal mines. The primary hazard associated with radon is its being a source of ionizing radiation, which is discussed below.

Other gaseous hazards include respiratory irritants found in diesel engine exhaust and blasting by-products. Carbon monoxide is found not only in engine exhaust but also as a result of mine fires. During mine fires, CO can reach not only lethal concentrations but also can become an explosion hazard.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx), primarily NO and NO2, are formed by diesel engines and as a by-product of blasting. In engines, NOx are formed as an inherent by-product of putting air, 79% of which is nitrogen and 20% of which is oxygen, under conditions of high temperature and pressure, the very conditions necessary to the functioning of a diesel engine. The production of NOx can be reduced to some extent by keeping the engine as cool as possible and by increasing ventilation to dilute and remove the exhaust.

NOx is also a blasting by-product. During blasting, miners are removed from an area where blasting will occur. The conventional practice to avoid excessive exposure to nitrogen oxides, dust and other results of blasting is to wait until mine ventilation removes a sufficient amount of blasting by-products from the mine before re-entering the area in an intake airway.

Oxygen deficiency can occur in many ways. Oxygen can be displaced by some other gas, such as methane, or it may be consumed either by combustion or by microbes in an air space with no ventilation.

There is a variety of other airborne hazards to which particular groups of miners are exposed. Exposure to mercury vapour, and thus risk of mercury poisoning, is a hazard among gold miners and millers and among mercury miners. Exposure to arsenic, and risk of lung cancer, occurs among gold miners and lead miners. Exposure to nickel, and thus to risk of lung cancer and skin allergies, occurs among nickel miners.

Some plastics are finding use in mines also. These include urea-formaldehyde and polyurethane foams, both of which are plastics made in-place. They are used to plug up holes and improve ventilation and to provide a better anchor for roof supports. Formaldehyde and isocyanates, two starting materials for these two foams, are respiratory irritants and both can cause allergic sensitization making it nearly impossible for sensitized miners to work around either ingredient. Formaldehyde is a human carcinogen (IARC Group 1).

Physical Hazards

Noise is ubiquitous in mining. It is generated by powerful machines, fans, blasting and transportation of the ore. The underground mine usually has limited space and thus creates a reverberant field. Noise exposure is greater than if the same sources were in a more open environment.

Exposure to noise can be reduced by using conventional means of noise control on mining machinery. Transmissions can be quieted, engines can be muffled better, and hydraulic machinery can be quieted as well. Chutes can be insulated or lined with sound-absorbing materials. Hearing protectors combined with regular audiometric testing is often necessary to preserve miners’ hearing.

Ionizing radiation is a hazard in the mining industry. Radon can be liberated from stone while it is loosened by blasting, but it may also enter a mine through underground streams. It is a gas and therefore it is airborne. Radon and its decay products emit ionizing radiation, some of which have enough energy to produce cancer cells in the lung. As a result, death rates from lung cancer among uranium miners are elevated. For miners who smoke, the death rate is very much higher.

Heat is a hazard for both underground and surface miners. In underground mines, the principal source of heat is from the rock itself. The temperature of the rock goes up about 1 °C for every 100 m in depth. Other sources of heat stress include the amount of physical activity workers are doing, the amount of air circulated, the ambient air temperature and humidity and the heat generated by mining equipment, principally diesel powered equipment. Very deep mines (deeper than 1,000 m) can pose significant heat problems, with the temperature of mine ribs about 40 °C. For surface workers, physical activity, the proximity to hot engines, air temperature, humidity and sunlight are the principal sources of heat.

Reduction of heat stress can be accomplished by cooling high temperature machinery, limiting physical activity and providing adequate amounts of potable water, shelter from the sun and adequate ventilation. For surface machinery, air-conditioned cabs can protect the equipment operator. At deep mines in South Africa, for example, underground air-conditioning units are used to provide some relief, and first aid supplies are available to deal with heat stress.

Many mines operate at high altitudes (e.g., greater than 4,600 m), and because of this, miners may experience altitude sickness. This can be aggravated if they travel back and forth between a mine at a high altitude and a more normal atmospheric pressure.



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