Safety in the Mining Industry

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“The mining workplace is inherently dangerous. It is not a muffin shop. Everyone who works at a mine site recognizes the dangerous nature of the work.”

Judge B.A. Bruser, R. v. Supreme Steel Ltd.

The truth of the above words, which come from a judge in the Northwest Territories, where mining is a key industry, is beyond dispute. Mining is and has historically been highly hazardous work. Miners frequently suffer serious occupational injuries and illnesses. But many miners suffer an even worse fate. According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, the mining, quarrying and oil well industries suffered 76 fatalities in 2006. In fact, one of the worst Canadian workplace safety tragedies happened at a mine: In the 1992 Westray disaster, 26 workers died in an explosion in a Nova Scotia coal mine.

So it’s no surprise that mining is one of the most intensely regulated industries in terms of workplace health and safety. This edition of FOCUS ON looks at the common hazards miners face, discusses increased regulation of mine safety and tells you how the provinces and territories address mine safety and hazards in their laws. And there’s a chart on page 15 spelling out the principal source of mine health and safety regulation in each jurisdiction.


Defining Our Terms

When we use the term “mine” in this article, we’re referring to a workplace engaged in the exploration for and extraction of materials such as coal, metals, precious or semi‑precious minerals, industrial minerals and oil sands, including underground, strip, open pit or quarry operations as well as any related processing plants, storage facilities or waste disposal facilities.

THE HAZARDS & INJURIES

In 2004, the mining and mineral processing industries employed 369,000 workers. This total includes men and women who work in actual mining, as well as in related jobs, such as smelting and refining. All of these workers face an array of hazards on the job. According to the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, mine workers typically face the following types of hazards:

Biological. Exposure to micro-organisms or toxins, such as mould or fungi, viruses or bacteria, that can cause acute or chronic human health effects.

Chemical. Chemical hazards resulting from exposure to an element or compound, such as silica dust, solvents and asbestos, that could cause negative health effects.

Physical. Environmental conditions, including exposures to excessive noise, ionizing and nonionizing radiation, inadequate lighting and heat and cold stress, that can harm health. Hazards in underground mines also include the threat of a collapse and other risks associated with confined spaces.

Miners face a relatively high risk of death, especially when they work underground. But the more common threat is injury. According to Ontario’s WSIB, miners typically suffer the following kinds of injuries:

  • Sprains, including back sprains;
  • Contusions and crushing bruises;
  • Fractures; and
  • Cuts and lacerations.

Miners are also exposed to numerous forms of occupational diseases and even ergonomic perils, such as repetitive use disorders.

STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
The mining industry and government have always recognized the hazards inherent in the work. But government scrutiny and regulation of health and safety in this industry has intensified. This increased scrutiny may be the result of Westray; some of it may be in response to technological advances. But what is clear is that several provinces have recently stepped up their regulation of mine safety. For example, Ontario’s updated mine safety regulations went into effect in Oct. 2007. (For more information click here.) The new regulations reflect the latest developments in the mining industry and affect:

  • Training;
  •  Vehicle safety;
  •  Underground storage and transportation of explosives;
  • and Elevators.

Nowhere is increased regulation of mine safety more evident than in BC. And as is too often the case, tragedies were the impetus for the following changes:

Updates to the BC mine safety code. On May 17, 2006, four people were killed at a water sampling shed located at the toe of a reclaimed dump at the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley, BC. The inquest into the Sullivan Mine incident made numerous recommendations for improving safety in mines. The province included these recommendations in revisions to the HealthSafety and Reclamation Code for Mines enacted under the Mines Act. The Code is the primary vehicle for regulation of safety in BC’s mining industry. It sets standards and requirements to protect the health and safety of workers and the public, as well as the environment, from dangers arising out of mining activities. The Sullivan Mine Code amendments include:

  • Increased reporting responsibilities for managers in the event of an incident resulting in a fatality or any “dangerous occurrence”;
  • A clearer and more precise definition of “confined space”;
  • Enhanced safe work procedures for confined spaces; and
  • Additional requirements related to the prevention of respiratory hazards and the procedures to be followed when a mine ceases operation.

Release of a best practices guidebook. Four workers—including two who’d been on the job for less than three days—were killed in separate incidents in BC’s quarries in 2007. So in January 2008, BC released a best practices guidebook entitled, Health & Safety: A Practical Guide for Aggregate Operations. The guidebook provides useful and practical guidelines to help workers, supervisors and managers maintain a safe and healthy workplace. It’s part of the province’s broader prevention strategy, which also includes:

  • A directive to the aggregates industry to prove that all new workers received appropriate training and orientation;
  • A health, safety and operational skills program similar to one used successfully in the construction industry;
  • Onsite mine inspections; and
  • Audits of mines to ensure that all mines are operating in a safe manner.

REGULATION

Each province and territory (except Prince Edward Island, which has very little mining activity) addresses the safety issues and hazards that are specific to mining. But they do it in different ways. There are four approaches:

Mine law and regulations. Four jurisdictions—BC, NL, NT and NU—cover mine safety and hazards in laws devoted specifically to mining. These include:

  • BC: The Mine Act and related regulations, including the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines;
  • NL: The Mines Act and Mines Safety of Workers Regulations; and
  • NT and NU: The Mine Health & Safety Act and related regulations.

Mine safety regulations under OHS law. Seven jurisdictions—Fed, MB, NB, NS, ON, QC and SK—have regulations devoted to mine safety and hazards under their OHS laws. For example, Manitoba addresses mine safety and hazards in its Operation of Mines Regulation and Québec covers the topic in its Regulation respecting occupational health and safety in mines. NB and NS have regulations that focus specifically on safety in underground mines.

Mine section of general regulations. Two jurisdictions—AB and YT—have sections in their general OHS regulations devoted to mine safety and hazards. In Alberta, the regulations are now in Part 36 of the OHS Code, 2006 but used to be in a separate regulation called the Mines Safety Regulation. In the Yukon, mine safety and hazards are covered in Part 14 (Blasting), Part 15 (Surface or Underground Mines or Projects) and Part 16 (Mines, Shafts and Hoists) of the OHS Regulations.

General OHS regulations. Two jurisdictions—NB and NS—have regulations devoted to safety and hazards in underground mines but address mine safety and hazards in general and in other types of mines throughout their OHS regulations.

Of course, regardless of how jurisdictions approach mining-specific hazards and safety, mining operations in all provinces and territories must also comply with all of the applicable terms of the general OHS law and regulations. How do we know? Because the definition of “workplace” in most OHS laws specifically includes mines. For example, Sec. 1 of Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health Act defines “workplace” to include a mine, and Sec. 1 of New Brunswick’s OHS Act defines “place of employment” to include a mine. So, for example, mines may need to have JHSCs if they have enough workers in the workplace.

Conclusion

The mining industry makes an important contribution to the Canadian economy. For example, according to Natural Resources Canada, in 2007, Canadian mineral production reached $40.4 billion—a 19% increase from 2006. But the industry also accounts for a high percentage of workplace injuries, particularly fatalities. So as a government official correctly noted when discussing mining in BC, “Constant vigilance is necessary to avoid accidents and prevent tragedies.” Although the provinces and territories use somewhat different approaches, they all impose strict safety requirements on mines. So if you’re the safety coordinator of a mining company, it falls on your shoulders to ensure that you’re familiar with these requirements and are taking adequate measures to ensure that the company complies with them. This article should give you some help in meeting this challenge.