Ageing miners suffering from backache

THE effects of an ageing workforce and the influx of “cleanskins” on the industry’s safety record will be highlighted at the Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety Conference to be held at Townsville in August.
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Lou Caruana

The Queensland Resources Council and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union are expected to meet with the state’s newly appointed Employment Skills and Mines Minister, Stirling Hinchliffe, to develop strategies of maintaining zero harm and keeping the state’s record of no fatal accidents in 2009-10 as the demographics of the workforce begin to change.

“We are again expecting more than 600 people from throughout Australia to attend this word-class conference to hear from keynote speakers who are leaders in their field on mine health and safety issues,” QRC chief executive Michael Roche said.

Australian mining companies are being urged to provide better onsite health care for ageing miners, with WorkCover estimating that the industry experiences almost twice the average incidence rate of workplace injuries.

The president of the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia (NSW), Dr Kerein Earney, said back injuries represented 24% of all major workplace injuries, costing $138 million and involving lost time of 70,884 weeks.

“Getting staff back to work faster should be a priority for employers as a report released last year by the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed the longer someone is off work, the worse their health and life expectancy becomes,” she said.

“Employers have a responsibility to provide injured workers with the best possible treatment, to enable them to stay on the job or return to the workforce quickly and to lead active, pain-free lives.”

Newcastle chiropractor Fred Stevenson, who has spent 12 years providing chiropractic care to miners at the coalface of several Hunter Valley mines, said many companies were now seeing the direct benefits of onsite care for employers and employees alike.

He said mining companies that provided staff with access to chiropractic care onsite were better able to provide a safe and healthy work environment, reduce absenteeism resulting from injury, and improve the wellbeing and productivity of their workforce.

“Healthier employees have a direct influence on healthier bottom lines for mining companies through a reduction in absenteeism, increased productivity, fewer health insurance and compensation claims, lower healthcare costs and reduced staff turnover,” Stevenson said.

“Working out of the first aid rooms at the Gretley colliery near Wallsend, the Bulga mine near Singleton and the Newstan colliery near Lake Macquarie, I found there was no one walking around without a problem and very few without pain.

“In fact, many of the miners I treated had been reliant on pain medication just to get through their working day.

“Miners often work long shifts performing physically challenging and repetitive tasks and are therefore at an increased risk of acute musculoskeletal injury and long-term damage.

“The hard manual work performed by underground miners often leads to low back pain, while in open cut mines workers often suffer mid to upper back and neck injuries as a result of operating heavy machinery.”

Other common causes of musculoskeletal pain and injury in the mining industry include over-exertion, vehicle jarring and vibration, being struck by objects, frequent bending and twisting of the trunk, lifting, slips, trips and falls.

“By going down into the mines and sitting in the machines, I saw first-hand the difficult working conditions and the industry-specific issues the miners faced. This assisted with the development of suitable treatment programs and also enabled me to provide advice to management about how to implement improved work practice,” Stevenson said.

“Once I’d cleaned up the old injuries I provided ongoing ‘maintenance’ sessions, including adjustments, stretches, massage and exercise prescription, which were popular with the workers who were often time-poor and unable to seek treatment elsewhere.

“When the workers knew they could receive chiropractic care at work, often they would make the effort to come in, have an adjustment and put in a day’s work of alternate light duties rather than calling in sick.”

One of the miners Stevenson treated at Newstan, Peter Rhodes, said the chiropractic care he received onsite had provided significant pain relief, helped him avoid many sick days and enabled him to perform better at work.

“I often had lower back and shoulder pain as a result of the repetitive and heavy work I was involved in, and I also had an old work injury that used to flare up occasionally,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for the chiropractic care I received at the minesite, I would have had to take a lot of time off work and I doubt I would still be working these days.

“I know most of the guys used to try and put up with the pain, but once they had access to the chiropractor they felt much better and were able to get on with the job.”

The 2011 Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety Conference will be held from Sunday, August 21, to Wednesday 24 at the Townsville Convention Centre.