For operational sustainability in the mining industry, mining decision-makers need to take a proactive approach to protect and promote worker health to supporting productivity and reduce legal liabilities associated with occupational disease. All of these aspects could have significant direct and indirect costs down the line, says global healthcare and medical services provider International SOS.
International SOS occupational medicine specialist Dr Dave Knight tells Mining Weekly that “this is especially applicable in underground mining, where the workforce may be exposed to silica and/or coal dust, causing lung diseases such as silicosis, coal workers pneumoconiosis and tuberculosis”.
Silicosis has a long latency period of 15 years to 20 years, or more, between first exposure and the eventual development of silicosis evident on a chest X-ray. This is the type of illness that could be overlooked as a mine’s budget may often focus on mitigating short- to medium-term risks, especially visible safety risks which may result in a fatality.
Knight explains that the danger is not appreciating the risk posed by occupational diseases with long latency periods, where the effect will only be felt decades down the line. The potential impact of these long- term health risks may also be underestimated as regulatory and sociopolitical changes down the line may heighten reputational and legal risks associated with occupational disease.
Additionally, there is also a moral imperative at play to protect worker health. “Being a responsible company in this regard promotes a more sustainable health and safety culture in the business.”
For example, Knight says: “The mining industry in South Africa has created a potential liability for occupational lung disease amounting to billions of US dollars, with a hundred thousand or more affected current and ex-mineworkers. “The occupational lung disease class action suits in South Africa may have also adversely affected the countries’ mining reputation along with the companies involved.
“How was a manager in 1988 to have predicted with great assurity the cost of occupational lung disease in 2018? What will a manager in 2018 do? The problem mines have with budgeting for long-term costs – ultimately affecting sustainability – arises from mine managers sometimes having a short- term horizon; looking at their yearly or monthly budgets and having targets to meet.”
Knight adds that they need to justify their numbers. Health risks are not always easy to quantify and end up being underappreciated.
He also points out that it is easier to estimate direct costs, such as staffing or capital expenditure, but indirect costs related to productivity and legal and reputational liability are not easy to estimate or justify. Some of the costs are intangible, which requires assumptions to be made about possible liabilities, without guarantee, and this makes it difficult for managers to justify expenditure on health programmes based on these numbers alone.
“If a mine wants to demonstrate a positive return on investment in health, they need to gain a sense of understanding around those assumptions on indirect costs and benefits. “These need to be accepted as valid and, thereafter, a longer-term budgeting horizon over five years, perhaps much longer, can be built.”
Knight recommends that there also needs to be a solid commitment to health, even though the costs and benefits may not seem directly evident.
Knight, along with other authors published a study on silicosis in 2015. The study was conducted across three of South Africa’s major gold mining companies. It found that the prevalence of silicosis in working black gold- miners, measured between 2004 and 2009, has not changed much compared with an older study on a similar mining population in the 1980s.
Additionally, the study found diseased workers were exiting the workforce at much higher rates, compared with miners without silicosis or tuberculosis. This could potentially lead to the problem being pushed into the community and other industries.
“This is despite industry undertakings to cut dust levels and prevent new cases of silicosis. It demonstrates the need to have a long-term model to cater for reducing risk, not only for the workforce but also for the sustainability of the mine,” notes Knight.
He adds that, when considering health risks and sustainability, it is also important to understand community health risks. Many, if not most, workers live in the community, and what happens in the community will impact on their health.
“Being responsible in the realm of health and safety, and being able to demonstrate its duty of care to its employees, also provides a mining company with the opportunity to promote its social license to operate. This, in turn, may assist in leveraging funding through improved sustainability indices.”
Increasing Social Focus
Knight avers that, increasingly, large investment funds are mandated to invest in a socially responsible manner.
A report in 2014 by the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment indicated that there has been a 76% increase in assets in socially screened investment in just two years, from 2012 to the start of 2014.
“In the US, sustainable, responsible and impact investing now accounts for $1 of every $6 under professional management – this equated to around $6.57-trillion in assets, as at the start of 2014,” he explains.
Knight adds that, increasingly, shareholders and investors in these funds are wanting to invest money into funds that are backed by a sustainability agenda and have a social impact – both on health and the environment.