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  • 28 May 2024
  • 2 months

Responding to Risk in Canada’s Mining Industry

Emily Fournier

Marketing & Communications Manager

Safety and Health Week—formally North American Occupational Safety and Health Week—is recognized across the continent each year in May. It’s a time for employers, employees, and all stakeholders to reflect on the importance of health and safety at work and in all aspects on one’s life; to consider how physically and psychologically safe one’s place of work currently is; and to commit to actively maintaining a safe workplace.

While this goes for both blue- and white-collar industries, an emphasis on the former is advisable. In truth, the mining industry is one of the most dangerous industries—not just in Canada but across the globe. Research shows that the fatal occupational injury rate among miners is 6 times that of all other private industries. Just this past year, two major mining companies in Canada were fined a combined $430,000 for failing to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment that led to the death of a miner back in 2020.

Such incidents aren’t uncommon, and they’re more often than not due to reasons like inadequate risk assessment or employer negligence than they are to inexperienced or inattentive workers. In fact, even just the number of workplace accidents, injuries, illnesses, and fatalities is likely vastly undercounted on account of employer negligence to sufficiently track and investigate such incidents; the secondary harms that they inspire even more so.

Consider, for instance, the case of Wish Donovan, a retired coal miner from Nova Scotia who dedicated more than 32 years of his life to the job now responsible for cutting it short. He shared with the Globe and Mail how after watching his own father slowly die from black lung, a disease almost exclusive to coal miners (also called “coal workers’ pneumoconiosis), caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust, he himself began to suffer from the condition after 7 years on the job. In his extensive interview with the Globe and Mail, he admits that he’s one of the “lucky ones,” insofar that he was able to satisfactorily “prove” that his condition is in fact an occupational one, something that most miners are unable to do due to a challenging process that takes years and that some say is intentionally obfuscated.

In Donovan’s case, he was able to prove his case and receive compensation thanks to Nova Scotia’s unique program that provides automatic benefits to anyone with more than 20 years of underground work experience. This program, along with other protocols followed by mining organizations across the provinces, adheres to the belief that roughly 1 in 10 miners—particularly those who work deep underground—are impacted by black lung. But in actuality, a 2018 report released by the NIOSH in the US revealed that this figure is likely closer to 1 in 5 for deep miners, and still rests above 1 in 10 even just for those who work closer to the surface, who are oftentimes ignored under the assumption that conditions like dust and insufficient oxygen impact them to a much lesser extent.

The lesson to be learned here is two-fold. On the one hand, Donovan’s story demonstrates how occupational hazards in the mining industry—notoriously a “legacy industry”—impact now just those who are seriously or fatally injured or harmed, but also those around them, including their peers and their family. On the other hand, it illuminates the glaring deficiencies in organizations’ abilities to accurately calculate and respond to risks.

This is unacceptable. These stories are unacceptable.

“For some coal miners struggling to breathe, finally succumbing to black lung sometimes seems like it would be a relief.”

“It’s not the dying that’s so bad…It’s the years of suffering that you do before that.”

In no other industry—save maybe the arms industry—would you expect people to accept so much risk and potential for death and disease as “part of the job.” No matter how “treacherous,” “uncertain” or “unpredictable” the working conditions may be deep underground, that is no excuse for failing to provide ample protection for workers—in the form of benefits and compensation, training and education, adequate supervision, and two-way communication channels.

The harm derived from conditions like black lung disease is one thing; the harm derived from inattentive or apathetic employers is another, and far more painful. In order to begin to make the mining industry safer for the very people who sustain it, employers must prove to their staff that they care for and are committed to protecting their health and wellbeing.

And that starts with proper risk assessment and risk management.

By collaborating with expert consultants with years of industry experience, employers can put together a comprehensive plan for identifying, monitoring, and addressing key risks present in their organization. This might include disseminating employee questionnaires or surveys as part of a comprehensive needs assessment, in order to discern directly from their feedback what specific challenges and health consequences employees might be dealing with at work. It might include helping employers to develop and deploy employee listening strategies that allow employees to raise concerns—or for employers to elicit input—in a timely manner. And, based on the information that’s gathered, this might also include helping organizations to deploy onsite or online counselling support, wellbeing ambassador programs, onsite training for employees and managers, and data-driven benefits programs.

In the context of black lung disease, consultants could work with employers to determine which employees or worksites are at risk; what procedures, protocols, or lack thereof contribute to that risk; and what strategies or solutions would best minimize and monitor that risk.

As those working in the industry know, there is no way to completely protect against risk. No one is asking employers to do so, anyhow. What employees are asking for, however, is for better protection than what they’re currently given. They want employers who will actually listen to their concerns and take them into consideration. They want employers who will believe them when they testify that their health has suffered due to challenges faced on the job. And they want employers who will do their best to remediate those harms, alleviate those concerns, and safeguard their health and wellbeing to the best of their ability.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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