Respiratory Diseases in the Mining Industry

Maintaining a safe environment for workers in the mining industry is a critical task. Their continuous exposure to the smoke and fumes derived from the mining of potentially harmful elements such as asbestos, coal and silica puts them at a greater risk for developing several respiratory illnesses.

Additionally, several factors such as the airborne exposure levels, the element being mined, certain pre-existing conditions of the miner, genetic factors and much more can exacerbate the extent of injury that will be imposed to the miner.

Legislative protection for miners working in the United States is maintained under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act (Mine Act), a bill that was passed in 1977 to ensure the complete safety of any individual working within the mining industry1.

While the fatalities associated with miners has continued to decline since the 20th century, serious occupational health concerns, specifically those affecting the respiratory system, remain a prevalent issue for the workers of this sector.

The two main lung diseases that affect miners, which are referred to as pneumoconiosis as a result of their regular exposure to airborne dusts, include coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), which is commonly referred to as “black lung disease” and silicosis.

Despite the growing interest in energy alternatives, it is still estimated that the total demand for coal in the Untied States was 1.12 billion tons in 20082, which is made possible by the approximately 200,000 active coal miners.

The Mine Act states that the maximum acceptable level of coal dust to be present within a mine is 2.0 mg/m3, however, the recent rise of CWP in coal miners has sparked concern that mining companies have not been maintaining an adequate ventilation of their mines.

Other contributing factors to the ten-fold increase in CWP, which in the 1990s affected only approximately 0.33% and in 2012 had risen to 3.23%, include long working hours and a harmful mixture of dust particles.

CWP, a disease that is very often mistaken for the more common respiratory illness that is associated with smoking cigarettes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), can be characterized by a cough, shortness of breath and the coughing up of black sputum.

Symptomatic treatment options include pulmonary rehabilitation to improve breathing, oxygen therapy and anti-mucus medications that can open up airways3.

The mining of silica, which is made mostly from silicon dioxide (SiO2), is a relatively easy to mine metal because of its prevalence within the Earth’s crust.

The mining of silica is acquired by the chipping, cutting, drilling or grinding of sand, which causes an accumulation of harmful silica dusts to surround the breathing airways of mining workers.

With symptoms that can appear fairly quickly within a few weeks, or following a chronic exposure over several years, silicosis can progress from a cough and difficulty breathing to chronic bronchitis, phlegm production, extensive pulmonary tissue scarring, increased breathing rate and a blue discoloration to the lips4. The treatment for silicosis is similar to that which is offered for CWP; purely symptomatic and without a cure.

The management of CWP, silicosis and any other type of chronic lung disease is limited and prevention is the only way in which these illnesses can be avoided. CWP, silicosis and other mining-related pulmonary illnesses are particularly problematic as a result of the delayed onset of symptoms that may not appear until several years following exposure; a period of time in which damage will continue to accumulate within the affected individual.

Government organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) therefore have a responsibility to improve and adjust the current acceptable exposure limits so as to further protect the health of the miner.

Image Credit:

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References:

  1. “Injuries, illnesses, and fatal injuries in mining in 2010” – United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics
  2. “Fast Facts About Coal” – Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute
  3. “Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis” – MedlinePlus
  4. “Silicosis Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors” – American Lung Association

 

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