There many health risks that a miners face and most they amount to cramped, unsafe facilities. The threat of injury is almost constant, miners often face being injured from equipment, roof collapse and falling objects. However the threat of physical harm is a real concern for many miners, this is not the not the only danger that miners face.
Miners are at risk of respiratory damage from the high levels of toxic chemicals and dust. In addition, the threat of damage to hearing is also a big concern, as the equipment used by miners tends to be quite loud.
South Africa has vast mineral resources, with 10 % of gold produced in the country and has 40 % of the world’s known resources. According to the department of mineral resource, South Africa has an estimated of 36 000 tons (t) of undeveloped resources about one-third of the world’s unmined gold remains.
A third of the country’s workforce is in the mining sector. The conditions in underground mining pose a serious health risk for mineworkers and their families.
South Africa has the highest rate of miners suffering from tuberculosis (TB) in the world of 3000 per 100 000 people are diagnosed with the infection constituting a health emergency. This alarming figure exceeds the world health organization emergency thresh hold for health emergency that is 250 cases per 100 000 people.
TB is one of the world’s most deadly diseases, killing three people every minute. Each year, 9 million people develop TB, and 1.5 million die from the disease
Poor ventilation and lack of hygiene safety have led to the rise of TB diseases in mining places. They are little or no circulation of air underground and most times exhaled air, dust and all toxic are trapped underground leading to the miners inhaling toxic and TB infested air.
Factors that contribute to the high incidence of TB among mineworkers include prolonged exposure to silica dust, poor living conditions, high HIV prevalence, poverty, circular movement of mineworkers across provincial and national borders, and a poor cross-border health referral system.
Underground heat also affects the health of mineworkers, most mineworkers they complain of inhaling underground heat.
Mining and Risk of Tuberculosis in South Africa
According to Bluecollar occupational health services, many mine workers are exposed to:
- Dust: Very fine mineral dust particles from blasting and drilling can accumulate in the lungs, causing a disease called pneumoconiosis. An irreversible, disabling form of this disease called silicosis can occur when a miner inhales excessive amounts of crystalline silica, or quartz. Black lung disease, which can strike coal miners, is another form. Pneumoconiosis can cause scarring of the lungs called fibrosis.
- Radon: A radioactive, odorless gas, radon is associated with several types of underground mining. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer.
- Welding fumes: These fumes consist of vaporized molten metal, and chronic overexposure can lead to respiratory tract irritation, systemic poisoning, and pneumoconiosis.
- Mercury: A heavy metal present in about 25 organic mineral compounds found in mines (depending on that particular mine), workers can inhale, swallow or absorb mercury through their skin. Even exposure to small quantities over time can lead to severe poisoning. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include weakness, mouth ulcers, bleeding gums and loose teeth, tremors, nausea, abdominal pain, headaches, diarrhea and cardiac weakness.
- Noise: Mining is a noisy process, and unfiltered noise emanating from equipment, such as drills, crushers, and engines, can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, speech interference and eardrum rupture.
- Heavy loads: Back injuries from lifting and shoveling as well as slips and falls account for about 25 percent of mining injuries that result in lost time from work.
Furthermore, many mine workers they live in mining compounds or hostels that are sitting on health time bomb. Mostly are not good for human habitation, with little or no hygiene sanitation.
At most, four people share a room and beds take most of the space, leaving space hardly enough for one to stand. Outside the hostels, a river of sewage flows producing an unbearable smell, which is now the norm for residents. These poor conditions they contribute to the spread of TB among miners and the community.
In combating TB in the mining area, Bluecollar has collectively collaborated with the government, mining Unions, mining companies etc to address the issue.
To date, several significant achievements have been made in the collective effort to tackle TB in the mining sector in the region, including:
- development of a cross-border tracking system for monitoring adherence to TB treatment for mineworkers;
- improvement of mineworkers’ living and working conditions by private sector companies;
- expanded and more accessible occupational health services to ex-mineworkers, linking ex-mineworkers to compensation services;
- increased advocacy on TB; and
- new models for active TB case finding, diagnosis, and treatment.
Furthermore, the initiative has led to a harmonized protocol for the management of TB, which ensures that TB patients within the mining sector, regardless of which country they may work in, receive the same treatment.