Mining in a changing climate: Redefining industry safety

In the dirt and often under the hot sun, rigs are spinning, holes drilled, metres are recorded, and ounces extracted. Every task is ticked off, employees get paid, and each worker expects (as they should) to return home after a hard day’s work. 

Despite the effort that goes into every mineral or metal mined and every dollar earned, the health and safety of employees working in the mining sector is not measured the same way. 

With today (28 April 2024) being World Day for Safety and Health at Work (World Day) and Workers’ Memorial Day, many organisations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) are acknowledging workplace safety, as well as what the effects climate change has on many industries, including mining. 

In 2024, the ILO World Day theme explores the ‘impacts of climate change on occupational safety and health’. Accompanying World Day, the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) theme for Workers’ Memorial Day 2024 is ‘climate risk for workers’.

As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth and the sun’s heat becomes trapped resulting in global warming and climate change, industry executives detail to Mining.com.au about the hazardous effects facing miners and how somewhat straightforward solutions can further help avoid worksite incidents and fatalities. 

Latest preliminary data from Safe Work Australia reveals that as of 11 April 2024 some 29 workers have been killed year-to-date. Its latest figures show that in 2023 there were 175 workplace fatalities recorded in the country. Over the past five years an average of 180 people have been killed at work in Australia.

The preliminary data to 11 April reveals there were two workplace deaths in mining this year, a sector which had seven workers not return home in 2023. Last year’s total is one less than the five-year average to 2022. 

As this news service reported, mining tends to fall on the lower end and averages eight workplace fatalities each year of the 180 total workplace fatalities making up the five-year annual average. 

What the data doesn’t include is the latest mining death on 23 April 2024 when a 21-year-old male died at Gold Fields’ St Ives Gold Mine in Western Australia. It is reportedly the second fatality at the St Ives operation in 18 months.

On 13 March 2024, as previously reported, a 37-year-old miner also died at Victory Minerals’ Ballarat mine, while two others were left injured. 

Outside of mining, Safe Work Australia reports the transport, postal, and warehousing sector continues to have the worst record. As of 11 April, the sector already recorded seven fatalities having amassed 60 of the total 175 workplace deaths in 2023.

Agriculture, forestry, and fishing again comes in as the second-most dangerous sector to work in with six deaths as of 11 April, after accounting for 21 of last year’s total of 175.

“The number of fatalities that we’ve had is just unacceptable, there are no words for it

As Mining.com.au previously disclosed, the rate of workplace fatalities in this country equates to about one every few days.

“The number of fatalities that we’ve had is just unacceptable, there are no words for it,” Agrimin (ASX:AMN) Managing Director and CEO Debbie Morrow says.

“As leaders of the industry, I think we all agree that we should not be killing people.”

While this is all happening, a less immediate and visible threat to worker safety is emerging. Climate change is posing a huge risk to the environment and to Australian mining companies, and is now being recognised as a high-risk to the global workforce. 

Cocktail of hazards

As more organisations across the globe are seeing the risks climate change not only has on the environment, but now, themselves, there is now more of a need, rather than a desire, for change. Climate change is now recognised as another ingredient to the ‘cocktail of hazards’ many industries face but few more than mining.

The International Labour Organization reports 70% of the global workforce are likely to be exposed to climate-change-related health hazards, while existing occupational safety and health protections are struggling to keep up with the resulting risks. 

A new report by the labour organisation estimates more than 2.4 billion workers – out of 3.4 billion – are likely to be exposed to excessive heat during work. 

According to KPMG, 38% of Australians in general face high risk from extreme heat, which causes on average 3,000 deaths per year — with 36,000 heat-related deaths from 2006 to 2017. 

As many mine sites are in remote and rural areas in Australia such the Pilbara or Karratha in Western Australia, temperatures can soar as high as 45℃, as reported by Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. 

Sun exposure can cause permanent and irreversible damage to the skin and eyes. As per Safe Work Australia, solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is the leading cause of skin cancer in Australia.

Solar UVR is a hazard when working in the sun, and exposure can be made worse when reflected off certain surfaces and materials. It can be at hazardous levels year-round in Australia, not only in summer. 

Eliminating exposure to ultraviolet radiation is the best protection. For example, complete outdoor tasks in the early morning and evening to avoid dangerous sun exposure, Safe Work Australia suggests.  

However, the impacts climate change has on the workforce goes beyond excessive heat, as climate change is now considered to cause a “cocktail of hazards”, as reported by the ILO. 

Within the mining sector, drilling, blasting, welding, and working near smelters or furnaces are also ways heat can quickly become dangerous to a mine site. Not only are some of the activities dangerous, but wearing heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) can trap body heat and rapidly raise core temperatures. 

Whether workers are underground or on the surface, miners are battling against a range of hazards on a daily basis. 

How does the workforce ensure that employees can be safe in work environments, when they can not control external factors such as the temperature? 

The Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) says certain climate-change-related hazards such as heat stress can be avoided by drinking cool and clean water, having rest pauses in a cool place, and helping sweat evaporate by increasing air circulation. 

These are straightforward yet significantly important safety measures.

Ticking the safety box 

While the world tries to reduce emissions and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, organisations are now trying to ensure that climate change does not harm not only the environment, but individuals.

Organisations working with the resources sector and building new technologies and innovations to ensure safety and compliance. 

MyPass Global Founder and CEO Matt Smith says that the industry needs more dynamic systems where companies can check competency and skills in the field for whatever job is being performed. Those competency levels also extend to adhering to health and safety regulations and compliance with company policies around PPE.

“Most solutions out there are about being compliant and ticking a box,” Smith tells Mining.com.au. 

MyPass Global is a digital skills passport that streamlines compliance management for major industry players. The technology helps to solve problems within the energy and resources sector and is also being used across defence, health care, and other highly regulated industries. 

“I didn’t have that hand-on-heart assurance that everyone out there was trained. We needed to rely upon the systems of a Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) or BHP (ASX:BHP) or whoever it may be, to make sure everyone that went through the gate was trained and competent,” Smith says of the catalyst to founding MyPass Global. 

“I thought there had to be a better way from a cost and risk perspective and when I searched, I could not find anything.”

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Science Director Louise Fisher explains that every company should conduct comprehensive risk management assessments and try their best to minimise harm. 

Yet, there is an opportunity to look beyond. 

Morrow shares a similar sentiment as she says no matter what, whether it is an injury or fatality, there is always a level of human error in there — because we are all human. 

“We’re doing something wrong if that is happening in 2024,” Morrow says.

Forward together to reduce fatalities

To mitigate against human error, mining companies are deploying more remote operations centres to bolster safety, while trying to remove as much human and hazardous interactions as possible. 

Morrow says from a safety perspective, removing humans from unsafe tasks is where technology has extremely helped the sector. 

“There are tasks now that can either get done robotically or get done less frequently because we now have enough data analytics to go off,” she says. 

Companies such as mining giant’s BHP and Rio Tinto have introduced remote centres to avoid human error, as well as human’s interacting with hazardous environments. In Perth, Rio Tinto has an Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth (AROSE), which takes remote operations capabilities from space and then applies it to Earth, focusing on improving the mining sector, as well as agriculture and defence. 

BHP has an Integrated Remote Operations Centre (IROC) which began operating in 2012. The centre is responsible for operating most of the company’s Western Australian iron ore logistics and processes. 

“The remote operations centre runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and plays a vital role in ensuring we get our iron ore from pit to port in the safest, quickest, and most efficient way,” BHP WA Iron Ore Asset President Brandon Craig says. 

Meanwhile, other organisations such as CSIRO are developing a suite of solutions using automated systems and advanced processes to reduce the exposure of workers to hazardous processes, environments, and materials. 

CSIRO Mineral Resources Deputy Director Louise Fisher tells this news service “we know that we want to reduce the chances of humans interacting with unsafe environments or humans being in the same space as large mining equipment”.

CSIRO’s innovative underground longwall automation technology is helping reduce the likelihood of losing a life. 

The technology uses specialised remote guidance technology to continuously steer the longwall equipment by plotting its position in three dimensions, removing personnel directly from hazards, resulting in an increase in safety processes. 

“There are great technologies available to reduce that exposure,” Fisher says. 

Promise to miners

Mining is no stranger to harsh climates, yet miners are becoming more susceptible to the dangers of bushfires, high temperatures, floods, and droughts, which are byproducts of climate change. 

Given the size and variety of Australia’s mining sector, there may never be a time when no deaths are recorded. However, reductions in workplace deaths in mining in particular does look promising despite a slowdown in progress.

The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute reports during 2003, there was an average 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in the industry; a decade later the figures were down to 3.4 fatalities. 

However, since then progress has slowed if not stalled. Despite the mining industry’s adoption of risk management systems, competency training, and a shift away from prescriptive regulation, the rate of deaths and serious injuries has barely changed over the past decade.

The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute report says given the huge size and variety of Australia’s mining sector, and the inherent dangers of the work, there may never be a time when there are no workplace deaths. But zero fatalities ultimately remains the goal.

Whether it be a fatality or injury, these incidents have a negative effect on not only the person experiencing it but their workmates and families as well. The toll can be devastating.

Fortunately, there are organisations offering services to individuals and families who have either experienced a work-crisis or endured a fatality — and Agrimin’s Debbie Morrow is part of one of them. 

She explains not-for-profit organisation Miners’ Promise provides a ‘wrap-around service’ when unforeseen situations, similar to the March Ballarat incident, take place. 

“We’d like to not be in this situation where we are supporting families of fatality victims, but we’re supported all the fatalities from the industry over the past couple of years and I sit here crying, reading the stories of these young men that lose their lives coming to work,” she says. 

Miners’ Promise was established in 2010 by people who had been affected by workplace fatalities. The organisation offers practical, emotional, and financial support to families following a significant crisis event or death. 

In times past, most workplace deaths were due to what are called ‘principal hazards’. These are major incidents such as fires, explosions, and mine flooding that can kill or injure many people.

Most safety work has, and for good reason, focused primarily on these hazards. According to the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute report, today they are involved in fewer than 20% of mining workplace deaths. This means the current tragedy landscape is more diffuse, with fatalities scattered across a range of different scenarios.

One of these scenarios is suicide. 

The National Insitute of Health reports that the suicide rate for male mining workers in Australia was estimated to be between 11 and 25 per 100,000 workers over 2001-2019.  

Agrimin’s Debbie Morrow says these statistics are “ridiculous”, in the sense that the industry and society as a whole are not paying enough attention to it. 

“I think we are evolving now to not just say that mental health is something that happens outside of work,” she says. 

In Australia, every year, 190 workers in the construction realm take their own lives, as reported by research-based and suicide prevention organisation Mates in Construction. 

This is equivalent to losing a life every second day due to suicide. When you add that to one workplace death every few days in Australia the number of lives being lost is astonishing.

With the alarming rates of suicide among the sector’s workforce, there is an urgent need to ensure the well-being of every worker is given the same attention to the extracting materials from the ground, industry sources all agree. 

As climate change continues being a threat to the global workforce, as well as the resources sector — there is a desire and motivation to improve safety while also mitigating the effects of climate change. 

In words continually uttered by trade unions, governments, and industry leaders alike ultimately a fundamental right is that ‘every worker deserves to return home safely at the end of each day’.

The climate around the number of workplace deaths must continue to change to ensure that each person who goes to work returns home to their families safely each and every day.

If you see something, say something.

Write to Aaliyah Rogan at Mining.com.au   

Images: Agrimin, CSIRO, iStock & University of Queensland
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Written By Aaliyah Rogan
Relocated from the East Coast in New Zealand to Queensland Australia, Aaliyah is a fervent journalist who has a passion for storytelling. When Aaliyah isn’t writing stories, she is either spending time with friends and family or down at the beach.