Battling the Silent Killer

October 21, 2019

RST operations and technical director David Handel explains how mining can tackle the silicosis crisis with effective and cost-efficient dust management solutions. Safe to Work writes.

Silicosis has re-emerged as a major issue for workers in mining and other industries where dust is prevalent over the past decade.

In Australia, for example, approximately 587,000 workers were exposed to silica dust in the workplace in 2011, with 5758 people estimated to develop lung cancer as a result of that exposure.

The occupations with the greatest exposure include mining, construction, farming and engineering, according to the Cancer Council Australia.

Silicosis is an aggressive and serious lung disease caused by breathing in silica, a mineral found in sand, rock, and mineral ores. It causes shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, and a severe cough.

It can go undetected for years as symptoms are not present in the early stages of the disease.

Silica dust has become an occupational health concern similar to the black lung disease that is faced by coal workers, according to Reynolds Soil Technologies (RST) operations and technical director David Handel.

“They’re calling it the silent killer,” Handel tells Safe to Work. “All of a sudden people retire at 65 years of age and they’re finding out that they have silicosis.”

Currently, regulated exposure limits stand at 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre over eight hours.

In response to the silicosis crisis, Victorian workplace minister Jill Hennessy has lobbied to drop the limit to 0.02 milligrams per cubic metre.

Handel says the whole industry is changing its stance on silica dust, including its legislation, accountability, monitoring, and response to dust.

“The mines are taking this matter very seriously in the best interests of workers and are working towards establishing new and improved safety industry standards,” Handel says.

“It’s not just about passing regulations to continue mining; they’re focused on the health and safety (of workers).”

In the past, dust control has been driven by workers on the ground who saw the issue first-hand, according to Handel.

Now, as the true dangers of physical dust particles are revealed, change is being instigated from the top-down within the mining houses.

“It seems to be a global initiative. What they’re doing in Australia is also what they’re doing in Colombia, Chile and other countries through the big mining houses,” Handel says.

However, current practices are insufficient in limiting silicosis in the mining industry. Dust is a difficult problem to solve as it has many different sources, with the most dangerous particles invisible to the naked eye.

“If you can see the dust, that’s an issue, but that’s easier dust to control. The dust you can’t see poses a serious threat to your health,” Handel says.

The current approaches to dust control usually involve water as the “great dust suppressant”, but water alone is ineffective, inefficient and wasteful.

“Water doesn’t work well on most of these applications because you can create other problems like stickiness, slipperiness or introduce more moisture into the material which affects the quality (of the product),” Handel says.

RST Mining and Civil Solutions aims to improve water’s performance through its additives, which Handel says typically doubles the effectiveness of water by reducing the fine particles in the air.

“A mine was watering 10 times a day on a haul road but were still chasing their tails, receiving phone calls and complaints. After using our additives, now they’re watering twice a day and receiving no complaints,” Handel says.

It’s important to deliver quantifiable results in a cost-effective and easily manageable way. This can be challenging as each mine site is different and requires varying solutions.

“The water and minerals are different on every site. You can’t use certain chemicals and on minerals because it can affect processing,” Handel says.

“It’s important to understand the mining industry to recognise the downstream effects that may occur when solving the original problem.”

RST has been operating for over 30 years and aims to provide tailored solutions to mining companies that are simple and economical.

“We’re not just about selling a vast array of products. We’re a solutions provider and we strategically match our products to effectively resolve our clients’ problems,” Handel says.

“It’s about dust suppression practices. Systems can be put in place that makes the operations work better, such as adjusting the speed of vehicles, delineating sections of roads on waste dumps, the design of dumps and crushers, looking at prevailing winds, and using predictive weather.”

Eradicating silicosis requires the joint effort of the mining industry and regulations. The ‘silent killer’ cannot be allowed to attack the health of miners.

“When you’re in a job and you’re dealing with it every day, it’s not an occasional event. The biggest thing is understanding what dust it is, identifying it and minimising risk to a greater extent,” Handel concludes.