Mining - Safety

Safety

Safety has long been a concern in the mining business especially in sub-surface mining. The Courrières mine disaster, Europe's worst mining accident, involved the death of 1,099 miners in Northern France on 10 March 1906. This disaster was surpassed only by the Benxihu Colliery accident in China on April 26, 1942, which killed 1,549 miners. While mining today is substantially safer than it was in the previous decades, mining accidents still occur. Government figures indicate that 5,000 Chinese miners die in accidents each year, while other reports have suggested a figure as high as 20,000. Mining accidents continue worldwide, including accidents causing dozens of fatalities at a time, such as the 2007 Ulyanovskaya Mine disaster in Russia, the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in the United States, and the 2009 Heilongjiang mine explosion in China.

Mining ventilation is a significant safety concern for many miners. Poor ventilation of the mines causes exposure to harmful gases, heat and dust inside sub-surface mines, which can cause injury, illness and death. The concentration of methane and other airborne contaminants underground can generally be controlled by dilution (ventilation), capture before entering the host air stream (methane drainage), or isolation (seals and stoppings). Rock dusts, including coal dust and silicon dust can cause long-term lung problems, including silicosis, asbestosis and pneumoconiosis (also known as miners lung or black lung disease). A ventilation system is set up to force a stream of air through the working areas of the mine. The air circulation necessary for the effective ventilation of a mine is generated by one or more large mine fans, usually located above ground. Air flows in one direction only, making circuits through the mine such that each main work area constantly receives a supply of fresh air. Watering down in coal mines also helps to keep dust levels down: by spraying the machine with water and filtering the dust-laden water with a scrubber fan, miners can successfully trap the dust.

Gases in mines can poison the workers or displace the oxygen in the mine, causing asphyxiation. For this reason, the Mine Safety and Health Administration requires that groups of miners in the United States carry gas detection equipment that can detect common gases, such as CO, O2, H2S, CH4, as well as calculate % Lower Explosive Limit. Regulation requires that all production stop if there is a concentrate of 1.4% of flammable gas present. Additionally, further regulation is being requested for more gas detection as newer technology such as nanotechnology is introduced.

Ignited methane gas is a common source of explosions in coal mines, which can potentially initiate more extensive coal dust explosions. For this reason, rock dusts such as limestone dust are spread throughout coal mines to diminish the chances of coal dust explosions as well as to limit the extent of potential explosions, in a process known as rock dusting. Coal dust explosions can also begin independently of methane gas explosions. Frictional heat and sparks generated by mining equipment can ignite both methane gas and coal dust explosions. For this reason, water is often used to cool rock cutting sites.

Miners utilize equipment strong enough to break through extremely hard layers of the Earth's crust. This equipment, combined with the closed workspace that underground miners work in, can cause hearing loss. For example, a roof bolter (commonly used by mine roof bolter operators) can reach sound power levels of up to 115 dB. Combined with the reverberant effects of underground mines, a miner without proper hearing protection is at a high risk for hearing loss. By age 50, nearly 90% of U.S. coal miners have some hearing loss, compared to only 10% among workers not exposed to loud noises. Roof bolters are among the loudest machines, but auger miners, bulldozers, continuous mining machines, front end loaders, and shuttle cars and trucks are also among those machines most responsible for excessive noise in mine work.

Since mining entails removing dirt and rock from its natural location creating large empty pits, rooms and tunnels, cave-ins as well as ground and rock falls are a major concern within mines. Modern techniques for timbering and bracing walls and ceilings within sub-surface mines have reduced the number of fatalities due to cave-ins, but ground falls continue to represent up to 50% of mining fatalities. Even in cases where mine collapses are not instantly fatal, they can trap mine workers deep underground. Cases such as these often provoke high-profile rescue efforts, such as when 33 Chilean miners were trapped deep underground for 69 days in 2010.

High temperatures and humidity may result in heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke which can be fatal. The presence of heavy equipment in confined spaces also poses a risk to miners, and despite modern improvements to safety practices, mining remains dangerous throughout the world.

Modern mines use automation and remote operation to improve the safety of mine workers. Examples include automated loaders and remotely operated rockbreakers.

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