We firmly believe that occupational disease and illness can be prevented, if risks are properly eliminated, or managed and controlled. Our occupational health, hygiene and wellness programmes are aimed at preventing ill health, as well as promoting good health and well-being.
We identify and quantify health hazards to enable us to minimise exposure and prevent injury and illness that may otherwise develop.
In adherence to legislative requirements, as well as the risk-based occupational health standards of Rössing, some of our key programmes included, but were not limited to:
- Noise exposure control
- Workplace ergonomics management
- Health and medical monitoring
- Hazardous substances exposure control
- Fitness for work, wellness and fatigue management
- Occupational medical surveillance, and
- Occupational hygiene.
The mining industry and its activities are associated with various health risks to which the workforce might be exposed. Health programmes remain a focus area, of which exposure monitoring and risk management and control are key components. All workers are grouped into similar exposure groups (SEGs) based on the areas they work in, similarity and frequency of the tasks they perform and the associated exposures of these.
At Rössing we follow a risk-based monitoring strategy for the respective SEGs, determined by annual reviews of the site risk register. During 2020, we monitored 16 of the 20 SEGs.
Occupational hygiene monitoring is conducted to evaluate legal compliance, risks to the health and well-being of our workforce, effectiveness of risk mitigating controls, as well as to track progress against objectives and targets which are aligned with the Rössing management system and health performance standards.
To ensure that collected data is accurate, comparable, and representative, statistical analysis and validation is conducted. Internal criteria are established to protect the health of the workforce, including contractors, and they are defined as occupational exposure limits (OELs). Non-conforming monitoring results are investigated through the incident management process and appropriate actions are developed and implemented.
Some of the harmful health risks and agents at our workplace include exposure to noise, dust (silica), musculoskeletal stressors, and microbiological agents found in the water system.
During 2020, our occupational hygiene monitoring programme included measurements of respirable dust (including crystalline silica quartz), noise levels, hydration testing and water-borne bacterium (Legionella and potable water).
Geraldine Morkel (E-MED paramedic), attending to a patient in an onsite ambulance before sending patient to Swakopmund for further treatment.
Mining activities are synonymous with dust generation. Primary dust generating operations include drilling, blasting, crushing, and the milling of mined ore, amongst others. The respirable fraction of the mineral dusts such as rock, stone, and concrete, which in most cases is not visible to the naked eye, may reach the alveolar region of the lung (respirable), causing the most damage.
Chronic exposure to excessive dust concentrations may negatively impact on workers’ health and may result in, but is not limited to, skin irritation and/or dermatitis, respiratory problems, and inflammatory lung diseases. The inhalation of dusts with specific elemental compositions, such as crystalline silica in the form of quartz, is well known to be detrimental to the human body and may result in permanent debility and even fatal disease.
During 2020, our dust monitoring for the crystalline silica quartz focused mainly on high risk areas due to limited operations.
We took respirable crystalline silica (RCS) samples from SEGs with expected silica exposure. The occupational exposure limit of 0.1 mg/m3 for RCS has been applied. None of the SEGs monitored exceeded the OEL for silica (Figure 5), whilst Reduction workers and Laboratory workers were exposed to RCS at 50 per cent of the OEL based on the Land’s “Exact” 95 per cent Upper Confidence Limit (UCL), analysed utilising the Occupational Hygiene Statistic tool, IHStats.
Noise from machinery, maintenance activities, and operational activities may put workers at risk of developing hearing impairment. Workers exposed to noise levels greater than the regulated occupational exposure limit of 85 dBA have an increased risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which is irreversible.
The use of impact tools, maintenance activities, general plant and equipment noise are the main sources of over exposure to noise at Rössing Uranium.
Noise zoning is applied in high-risk areas, together with the application of customised hearing-protection devices. In other areas, disposable ear plugs are used.
During 2020, eight of the 13 SEGs that were monitored for noise exceeded the occupational exposure limit of 85 dB(A). The measured exposures do not consider the protection factor provided by hearing protection devices in use. We make use of customised hearing protection devices for persons working in areas with high noise levels. These are permanently calibrated to filter out all noise levels above 82 dB(A). Figure 6 depicts the average annual personal noise exposures measured for the different SEGs in 2020.
Geraldine Morkel (E-MED paramedic) taking an employee’s temperature in the COVID-19 emergency room on site.
OCCUPATIONAL MEDICAL SURVEILLANCE
Occupational medical surveillance examinations provide baseline and periodic measurements to detect abnormalities in workers exposed to work-related health hazards early enough to prevent or limit disease progression by exposure modification or medical intervention.
A risk-based periodic medical programme is followed with consideration of the exposures of employees and contractor employees in different SEGs. These require employees and contractors to undergo pre-employment, periodical, and exit medicals.
Other medical examinations during employment include transfer medicals and return-to-work fitness medicals. Through the mine’s workplace wellness programmes, employees are encouraged to undergo additional medical screening tests to manage their own health and as a means of detecting chronic and/ or life threatening illness.
This programme was impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns in the regions. Also, certain tests, such as lung function tests, among others, had to be put on hold due to specific restrictions on the possible COVID-19 exposure risk when performing these tests. Despite all the challenges it was possible to successfully complete the occupational medical surveillance programme for employees and contractors by year-end.
Our workplace wellness programmes are designed to help the mine in creating a work environment that is healthy for employees. Encouraging employees to look after their health and well-being is a critical component of our overall approach to health and safety. The programmes also involve increasing knowledge and awareness through campaigns and education sessions and introducing policies that help employees make healthier choices.
During 2020, we were limited in terms of the onsite activities that could be held due to the COVID-19 impacts and restrictions. Specific activities that had to be put on hold were our annual Wellness Week, quarterly blood donation clinics and the voluntary counselling and testing drive during World AIDS Day.
Two rounds of alcohol and drug awareness sessions were held onsite by an external specialist to raise awareness around alcohol and drug abuse. These were done with strict adherence to COVID-19 controls.
Our annual awareness for Breast Cancer and World AIDS Day was done by selling cupcakes to Rössing employees and contractors and donating the funds raised to the Cancer Association of Namibia and the Catholic AIDS Action, respectively.
In 2015, the University of Manchester was appointed by Rio Tinto, (the majority shareholder in Rössing Uranium Limited until 16 July 2019), to conduct an independent study to investigate the potential link between radiation and other occupational exposures and developing cancer in the workforce at the Rössing Uranium mine.
Researchers from the University of Manchester conducted a comprehensive case-cohort study, covering a representative sample of all employees who had worked at least one year at the mine between 1976 and 2010. The research team carried out statistical analyses to determine whether there are any relationships between occupational exposures (radiation, silica, acid mist, diesel engine exhaust) and the selected cancers of interest.
The study has been completed and the required permission granted by the Ministry of Health and Social Services to provide feedback to key stakeholders. The study does not provide strong evidence that radiation or other exposures at the Rössing mine cause an increased risk of cancers in the workforce.