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When the tough get going!

Safety and health risks in the mining environment

The first one felt like a needle prick, the second like a rice shower at a sunset view wedding, the third, the fourth… I was in too much pain to even be playing Count (forgive the pun) amidst the hailstorm that had begun all of a sudden as I was in no man’s land. Way below sea level, I could feel the showers getting more intense, the pain more unbearable and the confusion was the least of my worries. Afterwards it was all darkness…. I had passed out in the middle of the day. It was not yet time to retreat into the arms of Morpheus, well at least for a miner who was just at the start of his shift. That signified the importance of having a helmet for me. A lesson that I highly value till this very day.

Encounters like these have become the norm on Zimbabwe’s small scale mining scene and the fortunate ones have managed to live to tell the tale. To whatever extent, these dangers are evitable and just a simple basic helmet could have helped me escape the unnecessary “mid shift nap” that I took in the middle of an Oh-so-important workday. Safety remains a huge concern in the small-medium scale mining industries in Zimbabwe. Mine shaft and tunnel collapses have become the miners’ nightmare, in the olden days, the start of the rainy season signaled the end of the mining season, however, with the current “need” to keep producing at whatever scale and for whatever reason, the mining industry has gone against the grain.

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Since September, almost five major mine collapses have been reported which have each claimed double figure fatalities and all of these have had poor health and safety manuals and practices to blame. Blanket mine disaster(Gwanda), Battlefields mine disaster(Kwekwe), Ran Mine disaster(Bindura), Matshethse Mine disaster(Esigodini), Task Gold mine(Chegutu), these are all examples of several mine disasters in Zimbabwe that have taken place over the past 2 years.  In most cases of mine collapses in Zimbabwe, there have been two main causes, one being the lack of proper mining strategy. In this increasingly common occurrence, the mining methods being implemented by the small scale miners has included that of destroying support pillars in the name of maximizing gains. This has left many of the major mines’ tunnels without much structural integrity. Ticking time bombs to say the least. It is more fact than fiction to note that the recent Ran mine collapse in Bindura was as a result of poor structural integrity of the mines. Illegal miner or not, a life is a life and its sanctity should be preserved.

Having worked at several artisanal establishments in the past, I can recall incidences when I felt the ground above shake, at depths of more than 40 meters, without any blasting taking place and this serves to prove that these collapses can occur in the blink of an eye.

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Another one of the safety hazards that mines face is in the rise in underground and aquifer water levels. A rather sad ending is the one experienced at Battlefields in the Kwekwe District where one of the biggest fatality counts were recorded after the miners “drowned” due to heavy rains that took place in a neighboring district, Mhondoro. 24 was the body count!

ZELA, the Zimbabwe Environment Law Association has been conducting training workshops in the country equipping the miner with vital information on Mine Safety Health. This has been crucial in improving alertness and responses in the mines. The miner, in whatever regard has to know that it is his/her right to have the knowledge of key safety and health protocols.

It is also important to note that there are several mine health and safety concerns that the miner needs to be aware of apart from strong mine structures and understanding mine drainages.

Dust inhalation

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The fine dust particles that are emitted in the drilling and blasting processes are some of the long term dangers that stick out like a sore thumb in every miner’s life. Respiratory illnesses are a cause of concern in the industry and short term containment measures like the intake of milk after blasting exercises have proven to be effective in the moment but negligible in the long run. Miners need respirators and effective programs that ensure medical assistance is offered regularly to curb long term conditions.

 

 

Noise

Another by-product of the drilling and blasting process, more root causes include but not limited to, use of rotating hammer drills (more affectionately known as pam-pam), constant generator and compressor engine noise. Continuous exposure to such loud noises can lead to ringing in the ears, eardrum damage amongst a host of other hearing related problems.

Chemical Hazards

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The biggest long term danger in the industry has to be this one! Substances like the following have been listed with the health hazards associated.

  • Mercury – Kidney and lung infections, Neurological disorders
  • Sodium cyanide – Rapid asphixation, wheezing and coughing
  • Nitric acid – Burns, laceration and scarring
  • Borax- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Lead Nitrate –  methemoglobinemia, lead poisoning
  • Hydrogen peroxide – Burns, skin and tissue damage
  • Flocculent – burns, irritation to mucosal and digestive tract corrosion.
  • Activated carbon – irritation of mucous membranes
  • Ferrous sulphate – damage to blood vessels, liver damage, eye discolouration
  • Sulphuric acid – respiratory irritations and skin burns
  • Hydrochloric acid – respiratory tract irritation and inflammation and pulmonary edema in humans.

However, it is not all doom and gloom in the industry. It is important to note that all the listed health hazards that the miner faces on a daily basis can be avoided provided proper health and safety precautions are implemented in the workplace. This includes the wearing of protective clothing and use of safety tools and equipment. That alone is not a surefire way of avoiding incidences and accidents, the miner also has a role to play in ensuring proper protocol and procedures in operation of machinery and carrying out of duties are followed accordingly.

Thermal Stress

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Mine environments are often hot and humid. Chrome and base metals smelters and beneficiation plant workers are often exposed to work environments that have little ventilation and high temperatures. These environments require the wearing of protective clothing that is heat proof and hydration points need to be accessible with ease.

Whole body vibration

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Jackhammers and rotating hammer drills along with excavators, drill rigs and mechanical milling machinery such as hammer, stamp and ball mills have an effect on the motor neurone stability of the human body. Conditions like this can be controlled through having regular medical checkups and maintaining a flexible work schedule that ensures the employee is not regularly in the line of heavy duty work.

UV Exposure

Skin cancers arise from excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays. This mainly applies to open cast method practitioners who work under the direct exposure of the sun’s Ultra Violet rays.

General injuries

The mining workplace is considered to be one of the most hazard strewn job sites. Each workplace has to have a proper safety manual that includes regular drills which are to be undertaken to ensure the employee has a vivid picture of what to do to ensure a safe work environment.

 

Mining in general is a highly lucrative business option, not only is proper expertise required in operations but there is need for a bit of emancipation of the workers, the lifeline of the business. A balance needs to be created by the employer, making sure the rights (yes, RIGHTS!) of the employee are met and addressed whilst at the same time keeping the business side meaningful. When undertaking mining projects, health and safety are part of the key factors that need to be addressed in mining company’s planning phases. Issues like employee motivation may seem erstwhile practices but time immemorial, companies have always come to realize that production is determined by employee morale. Safety in the workplace is a notable aspect of employee morale.

A renowned miner once said, “You do not mine to make money but you make money to mine. (sic).” It’s a public secret that mining companies need to invest a lot in the formative phases of a project. Companies such as Kromount Technologies have years of experience in dealing with miners from the smallest stages going up. Having such a partner in your corner is very vital especially when it comes to dealing with local problems in terms of health and safety. Under its management, Kromount Technologies has Vuti Quarries, one of the safest worksites in the nation. Since the inception of the North-South corridor Marongora road expansion project. Not even a single fatality or on the job injury has been recorded. This amongst a host of other factors shows the importance of having a proper health and safety module in place. Implementation is key as well when it comes to dealing with health and safety issues as well hence the need to have such a seasoned partner in your corner, who’s ready to tackle such issues.

Liberty Mupondi is a former artisanal miner currently within the ranks of Kromount Technology. He’s part of the company’s small-medium scale operations division. The department focuses on investing in small-medium scale setups and amongst a wide array of services it offers technical, strategic, machinery sourcing, milling and planning services.