Events, Features

Safety under a microscope

Occupational hygienists from around the nation converged on Melbourne in December for the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists’ 40th Annual Scientific Conference and Exhibition. 

Working on a mine site carries risks that must be managed properly to ensure everyone remains safe and healthy.

The risks associated with hazards, like working around heavy machinery and at heights are often obvious and have immediate consequences. But other hazards are not so visible. Occupational hygiene considers many of these longer-term hazards, including noise, heat and dust.

Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) media ambassador Samantha Clarke told Safe to Work the mining industry needs to incorporate effective dust controls to manage’ exposure to silica, coal and metal dusts at the same level they manage other safety risks. This includes ventilation systems and respiratory protection.

“Because their impact may take years to result in irreversible health effects, like cancer or noise-induced hearing loss, these risks do not tend to demand the attention they deserve,” Clarke said. “Like safety hazards, occupational hygienists use the hierarchy of controls when advising ways to manage these risks.”

As an occupational hygienist herself, Clarke has helped mines understand their exposure risks, often starting with a walkthrough survey to understand processes and controls in place. This includes speaking to workers, who typically understand their workplaces best, often discussing the problems and possible solutions. 

Workplace monitoring can measure levels of dust or noise to which workers may be exposed. This can then be compared to workplace exposure standards to understand health risks, in turn informing an ongoing strategy to prioritise and minimise these risks.

“Measurement is important even when exposure levels are low,” Clarke said. “Respirable crystalline silica, for example, can be hazardous at very low concentrations, so exposure risks may not be obvious. Data can support a business case for large exposure-reduction projects. Having a quantitative baseline can also verify effectiveness of these investments by demonstrating reduction in exposures.”

Occupational hygiene has great potential across the entire the resources industry, which is why the AIOH is encouraging mine and quarry operators to attend its Annual Scientific Conference and Exhibition on in Melbourne from December 4–6.

“The event will host speakers from around the world to share advances in health knowledge, monitoring technologies, research, communication and leadership,” Clarke said. “We welcome safety professionals, allied health professionals and site operators to gain an insight into our field.

“It will also feature our biggest ever exhibition, where equipment suppliers, laboratories, consultants, software providers and universities share the latest technologies, tools and services.

“Our goal is to promote healthy workplaces by providing opportunities for members to continuously improve their technical and influencing skills. This enables us to engage with and support industries to understand and effectively manage health risks, and ultimately reduce the risk of workers experiencing disabling diseases.” 

This feature also appears in the November-December issue of Safe to Work.

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