Playing doctor

HOW can you provide an antidote without first diagnosing the illness? This is the question behind what could be the world’s largest and most intensive study of coal miners' exposure to health and hygiene risks.
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Appin longwall

Angie Tomlinson

Published in Australia's Longwalls

To date, no study based on scientific fact and mine site trials has come up with an industry standard that the longwall sector can use to implement programs to protect miner’s health.

So in stepped BHP Billiton Illawarra Coal (BHPB) and the Health and Safety Trust.

These two organisations joined forces two years ago to create a baseline for exposure of coal miners to health and hygiene risks.

The program is based around prioritising issues, creatinge a baseline founded on actual data, and implementing action plans with measurable results.

The $200,000 plus project is developing a comprehensive and scientific measure of coal miner exposure, that can be compared to compensation claims and other health information, to create strategies for managing or eliminating hazards.

“A baseline provides guidance on those areas that need to be managed and what level of resources that are necessary to control them to within reasonable limits (some substances do not have statutory limits so a best practice approach is adopted). It also has the effect of providing real data not suggestion and this helps focus attention in those areas where added attention is required,” said occupational hygienist Brian Davies.

Hazards identified, from highest to lowest risk include: dust, noise, hazardous substances, microbiological agents, organic vapours, gases, diesel particulate, welding fumes, soluble oil, confined spaces, vibration, asbestos, heat stress, radiation, synthetic mineral fibres, lighting, electromagnetic fields, PCB’s, and mould/fungi.

Mine site sampling began in January 2003 and has been used to determine the need for improvement programs and as a baseline for continued monitoring.

The research team has tackled the long list of issues by studying the highest ranked hazards first – noise and respirable and inhalable dust. A total of 1200 personal exposure levels from 30 different groups at the Appin, Dendrobium, Elouera and West Cliff mines and preparation plants have been collected and analysed.

Tests showed exposure to inhalable dust was above best practice levels, resulting in a dust reduction program at Appin longwall (see related article, page 20).

Davies said given the success at Appin, similar work is now being carried out in a continuous miner panel at West Cliff Colliery using the same operating excellence program used at Appin.

The data also showed employee exposure to noise was extreme. Subsequently, site hearing conservation programs have been intensified at BHPB where “deaf zones” are identified and where hearing protection is required. Davies said this was essentially an area within15m from any operating machinery or inside mobile equipment. He said workers had accepted this program as it allowed a fair degree of freedom but required personal protection equipment to be worn where necessary.

Noise levels have also been written into equipment purchasing policies. BHPB have signalled their intentions to OEMs by indicating they will withhold payments on projects or equipment until contractual agreements on noise levels are achieved.

Testing also revealed hazardous substance procedures were inconsistent and below best practice levels. Therefore BHPB has put together procedures consistent with NSW hazardous substance regulations and preliminary training has been completed.

With 30-40% of the issues originally identified under investigation or in the process of being controlled, BHPB and the Health and Safety Trust are now moving to evaluate the balance over the next 18-24 months.