Working towards healthier miners

WHILE safety is paramount in the mining industry, overall health and wellbeing is sometimes overlooked. The Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology has teamed up with Downer EDI Mining to develop and implement a four-year occupational health and safety program. Kristie Batten spoke to Professor Tony Parker of QUT about the initiative.

Kristie Batten

Parker and the institute have been working in the mining industry for around 10 years and regularly present at mining conferences and forums.

The occupational health program at Downer EDI Mining was launched in April 2008 after what Parker describes as a mutual contact.

“In terms of what we would like to do and what they would like to do, we finally realised we had some mutual interests and could work very closely together to enhance the health of their workforce,” he told

Parker said workplace health often lags behind safety in terms of importance.

“I think in the industry generally, we have a strong emphasis and have done extremely well in the mining industry in aspects of safety, but in the area of OH&S safety, for me, is the big S and health is the little h,” he said.

“As a consequence, I think we have to get a much better appreciation of the relationship between health and safety and also recognise that poor health can also be a safety risk factor that can come in a number of different disguises or guises.”

Parker said that epidemiological data indicates that the more significant workplace health issues include muscular-skeletal injury, cardio respiratory issues, metabolic fitness and weight issues, fatigue and sleep and mental disorders.

“Evidence in mining indicates that one of the most expensive and the longest in terms of recovery and return to work are mental disorders,” Parker said.

“We tend to think of a lot of these things as separate entities and separate chronic conditions, but they are often very much interrelated.”

According to Parker, one of the most unique aspects of the program is its holistic approach and its four-year length, as many health interventions are not long enough and companies are disappointed with the lack of results after a 12-month period.

“I would think it’s probably one of the first or one of the infrequent situations that we have experienced in which a company has said ‘look, we recognise that, although there will be some short-term gains in this project, to effect health and behavioural changes in any company can take a period of time’,” Parker said.

The program allows Parker and his team to take a holistic approach to health across the company and look at new and innovative ways to address issues such as muscular-skeletal injuries and chronic musculoskeletal disorders.

“In spite of the application of traditional ergonomics and other health-type solutions to the problem of muscular-skeletal injury, the problem still persists and, in fact, has relatively plateaued over the last few years in terms of incidents,” Parker said.

Parker and his team use previous research and mining industry data and also take into account age, diversity in the workforce and demographic changes in the workforce.

“We’re able to look at those things on the experience and research we’ve done previously and we’re able to link with Downer and, in some cases, their clients, to look at examining new ways of addressing that particular problem.”

Downer EDI Mining is very much involved in the program with its Brisbane-based group health and injury management advisor, Shaun Smith, heading up a dedicated team within the company.

“We come from a background where we do understand the issues, otherwise I’m sure we would not have engaged with Downer in this way and so it’s not a bunch of academic scientists saying ‘well we know what’s best’,” Parker said.

“One of the big things about the project is that we do seek to get that feedback and that input from everyone in that particular company.”

Parker added every company had different issues and, while his team was familiar with other companies and sites, the issues facing others were not necessarily the same as those facing Downer EDI.

“We obviously can’t be at every site on every day of the week, but we have visited, for focus group discussions with both management and the workforce, nine different sites across the country and we’ve set up a whole communications strategy,” Parker said.

“Our work in mining and other industries has indicated that often the richest source of information is from the workers themselves.”

The team has also been working on appointing health ambassadors on different sites that are linked to the occupational health and safety teams.

One of the most important parts of the project is giving feedback to workers involved in the program.

“For example, if we test a miner on something, then it’s all obviously confidentially done, but we then provide those people with a report,” Parker said.

There are currently around 10 people from the institute working directly on the project and Parker said he is fortunate enough to have access to outstanding multidisciplinary expertise, not only in the institute, but throughout QUT.

Parker said the next step in the program is ensuring miners are educated about workplace health, which the university could also assist with.

“We’re very interested in linking with an educational research group here as well to look at some of the educational processes within industry.”

Again stressing the four-year length of the project, Parker said that in a time-poor industry like mining, implementing change takes time and requires a coordinated, evidence-based approach that moves well beyond a “one-size-fits-all situation”

“You can’t do all this in one hit or one visit,” he said.

Parker said the ultimate outcome of the program is to use an evidence-based approach to enhance the health of the Downer EDI workforce.

“There’s often a lot of rhetoric around health issues but this is not always matched by action.”

Professor Tony Parker and Shaun Smith will present a session on the program at the Chamber of Minerals & Energy 2009 Safety and Health Conference in Perth, March 9-10.