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Mining & Resources | Occupational Health & Safety

Managing lifestyle factors for miner health and safety

14 Apr 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

Health surveillance in the mining industry has historically focussed on the physical aspects of the profession, particularly the threat of occupational diseases from airborne contaminants. In the last decade, this has begun to shift with lifestyle factors, such as obesity, stress, and chronic disease, increasingly coming into focus.

Within mining, rates of these conditions are typically greater than that of the general population. On average 76 percent of miners are obese or overweight, compared with a national average of 67 percent. At 42, the median age of miners is on an upward trend and is higher than that of Australia’s ageing population (40). As this rises, so too are rates of chronic disease.

Dr David Meredith, Head of Medicine at Coal Services says an ageing workforce and lifestyle factors have safety implications, not just for individuals, but for the broader employee base. Various medical conditions expose workers to the risk of sudden incapacity, and in safety critical roles, this may endanger the lives of team members, he warns.

“Today, when we assess a worker’s fitness for work, we are looking for medical conditions that may lead to unavoidable, sudden incapacity or impair capacity over time,” he said. “With weight and age increases we will see growing rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which carry the threat of heart attack and stroke. Meanwhile obstructive sleep apnoea can put people at risk of micro sleeps.

“These conditions increase the burden on the individual and their quality of life, but also the safety environment in which they work. In a safety critical setting, this loss of capacity can lead to serious injury or death, major property, environmental or reputational damage.”

Adequate management

While people living with high risk conditions can perform safety critical work, Dr Meredith stresses that adequate management and regular review are essential. He recommends going above and beyond existing regulatory guidelines to meet the safety needs of workers.

“When a risk is identified, we want to ensure that the condition is being adequately managed and will seek further information, usually from the worker’s own general practitioner. We then recommend more frequent monitoring than the three-year periodic review prescribed by the NSW Coal Order 43 health surveillance program to effectively manage non-work-related health conditions,” he said.

“Early reviews are also recommended, as many conditions that can cause sudden incapacity – like diabetes – are progressive and cannot be certified as safe for three years. Monitoring at individualised intervals helps to ensure that the condition is stable and that it is being managed appropriately.”

While medical reviews are not a requirement under Order 43, assessing doctors are required to report on a worker’s fitness for the role; including any identified conditions and recommendations.

“You are not in breach of Order 43 if you choose to ignore the recommendations for early review, but in the event of an incident both the employer and worker may have difficulty establishing that they have complied with their respective duties under the Work Health and Safety Act,” David added. “Medical reviews should really be seen as an extension of the Order 43 medical process. It’s about protecting themselves and their fellow workers from potential harm.”

Data-driven strategies

Alongside ‘above and beyond’ review measures, health data has an important role to play in improving the health and safety of mining workers. Coal Services is currently looking at creative ways to use data in the management of chronic disease and its associated safety risks. Dr. Meredith says there are a wide range of potential applications.

“Data can be used to clear people for roles and ensure they are fit to do the job,” he said. “For existing employees, it can tell us when to flag and intervene with weight or BMI gain, by channelling the employee into an appropriate referral pathway. Alternatively, it can be used to refer somebody for a sleep study or cardiac review. For people in safety critical roles, these mandatory trigger points could me more sensitive,” he said.

Currently the mining industry has a wealth of data, which has not yet been put to sophisticated use in the ‘prevention or ‘early intervention’ phases of WHS management. Dr. Meredith says the use of data will determine future WHS guidelines and hinted that positive change is on the way, with a new data-drive initiative soon to be unveiled.

“We can’t talk too much about that just yet, but let’s just say an exciting period of change is about to happen for the mining industry and the health and safety of its workers.”

Sharing details of this initiative and his broader WHS wisdom, Dr. Meredith will present at the Miners’ Health & Wellbeing Conference, hosted by Informa Connect. This year’s event will be held at the Rydges South Bank Brisbane.

Learn more and register.

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