Protecting miners’ health, both physical and mental

June 21, 2022
minor doing paperwork

As the world demands minerals that drive the green economy and fourth industrial revolution, mining companies need to protect their most precious asset—the people who make up their workforce.

Protecting the health of miners is the aim of a national partnership with the University of Arizona, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the mining industry and other interests.

“Miners are recognized as the greatest and most important asset in our industry,” says Dr. Eric Lutz, director of the UArizona Mining Safety Center of Excellence (SCE) housed in the School of Mining and Mineral Resources. “We must not simply prevent disease, but optimize the physical and mental health and wellness of miners to balance accepted expectations of higher standards of care with growing societal mineral demands.”

The Miner Health Partnership launched in the fall of 2021 as part of NIOSH’s Miner Health Program. By engaging community partners, NIOSH can assess needs that can become the basis for research across the mining community. The partnership provides an informal forum to discuss challenges, share research and detail industry practices used to protect miners.

NIOSH asked Lutz to help the federal agency develop and lead the Miner Health Partnership. Lutz previously managed the Miner Health and Safety Program at the UArizona’s College of Public Health, then directed NIOSH’s Spokane Mining Research Division before returning to the university. He has promoted advancing miner health and wellness for more than a decade.

“The SCE is recognized as a leading academic center in miner health support and innovation,” Lutz says. The interdisciplinary center is dedicated to innovative mining research, education and training with strong collaborations across the university and the mining industry. It’s a perfect match to what NIOSH wants to accomplish with the partnership.

The partnership’s meetings focus on trying to help miners facing sustained health challenges. There are many:

  • work exposures to dust, noise, heat, vapors, fumes, gases and whole body vibration
  • work influences such as shift work, shift length, overtime and site remoteness that affects the availability of medical care
  • personal behaviors such as diet, sleep, exercise, smoking, substance use and misuse, elevated health risk behaviors and COVID vaccination status
  • personal health that includes hypertension, obesity, fatigue, hearing loss, arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders.

An obstacle to addressing many of these challenges is the lack of information, including how to find a baseline of employee health, methods to monitor and address issues, an understanding of health effects from exposures outside of work and ways to find and implement successful health protection and improvement programs.

This was evident in a March partnership discussion about mental health among mine workers. More than 50 teleconferencing participants heard the results of a survey of Canadian mine workers that revealed a host of conditions that need addressing. These included burnout, fatigue, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.

In breakout sessions, participants discussed the difficulty in reaching out to their workforce to understand the state of their mental health, removing barriers and stigma, and knowing how to align care with needs.

It’s this kind of sharing that the partnership hopes will result in better health outcomes for workers. “As the Miner Health Partnership continues to mature and grow,” Lutz says, “mining companies will find the partnership to be a clearinghouse of miner health and disease mitigation resources and best practices.

Eric Lutz