Coal mining is a centuries-old occupation that has undergone many changes over the years, but it remains one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. Aside from the immediate risk of operating heavy machinery underground, the long-term impact of coal mine fire smoke on lung health can be debilitating.
How can we protect coal miners from the fumes that surround their job sites? Here are the specific effects of coal mine smoke and seven methods for creating a safer working environment for employees.
Impact of Coal Mine Fire Smoke on Lung Health
Coal mine smoke contains carbon monoxide, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and particulate matter (PM). Each of these harmful pollutants has particular effects on the human body:
i). Carbon monoxide
This colourless and odourless element binds haemoglobin to the blood, reducing its ability to carry oxygen to the brain, lungs and other vital organs. Common symptoms include fatigue, headaches and disorientation.
This element is also colourless at room temperature but has a sweet odour. It decreases the red blood cell count, weakening the immune system and increasing the chance of an infection.
Symptoms include dizziness, headaches, skin and eye irritation, and trouble breathing. Loss of consciousness is also possible at high levels of exposure.
These compounds don’t have immediate effects, but long-term exposure can lead to many health problems. Cataracts, jaundice, and liver and kidney damage are possible, but the worst outcome is an increased risk of lung, skin and bladder cancer.
Inhalation of fine particles through coal fire smoke has several consequences. In the short term, you can expect eye and respiratory tract irritation, a runny nose, coughing and shortness of breath. In the long term, lung function noticeably worsens and the severity of conditions like asthma and heart disease increases.
These elements create a terrible working environment for coal mine employees. For example, the respiratory disease pneumoconiosis is so common among workers that medical experts gave it a nickname: black lung disease.
Other diseases like silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) also make frequent appearances in the coal mining population.
How can coal miners be protected from these threats? A safe working environment requires two ingredients: functional equipment and practical procedures. People need the right gear to protect their bodies from pollutants and smart strategies in case of malfunctions or an emergency.
How to Protect Employees From Coal Mine Fire Smoke
Here are seven effective methods to reduce exposure to coal mine fire smoke and maximize worker safety. Companies that implement these procedures and equipment can improve miners’ health and safety.
1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) encompasses hard hats, headlamps, reflective vests and other gear coal mine employees wear on the job site. Those items might make their lives easier underground, but they don’t do anything to combat smoke and pollutants.
One way to relieve coal workers from their fume-filled jobs is having HAZMAT suits and breathing apparatuses around the site. Workers don’t have to wear them full time, but they can use them for specific jobs that produce high quantities of smoke. These items will also make the jobs of first responders easier in an emergency.
Another wearable technology that could revolutionize the coal industry is self-contained self-rescue devices (SCSRs). These machines provide portable supplies of clean oxygen if workers are exposed to toxic fumes or are trapped underground. Instead of constantly inhaling pollutants, miners can rely on SCSRs for clean air in smoky situations.
2. Remote-controllable Devices
Coal mining often requires workers to operate heavy machinery while exposed to coal mine fire smoke for long periods.
What if they could run the machines from another location? Instead of travelling underground to do their jobs, miners can operate their bulldozers, drilling units and other equipment above-ground via remote controls and avoid the harmful fumes.
The global labour force is more mobile than ever since COVID-19 began, so now is an opportune time to integrate new technologies into the mining industry. For example, Resolute Mining from Australia can operate its fleet of equipment 24/7 thanks to a fully automated and remote operating system, dodging COVID and fire smoke risks at the same time.
Flyable drones can be especially useful in the mining industry. They monitor the worksite from all angles — including the ones humans can’t reach — allowing site managers to implement more effective safety regulations. They also save miners the trouble of entering dangerous environments to perform inspections, including smoky corridors and other areas with poor air quality.
3. Wireless Underground Communication
Although remote-controllable devices can do most of the heavy lifting, miners still need to go underground to complete smaller tasks. In these situations, wireless underground communication devices allow workers to instantly broadcast any safety hazards to their peers, saving precious time that could prevent an emergency.
A worker might notice a dense cloud or peculiar accumulation of smoke somewhere underground. Instead of relaying that information up the ladder through the hard-wired paging system coal mines usually have, they can notify the entire site in the blink of an eye.
Today’s cellphones and radios have the capabilities to improve worksite communication, so why not take full advantage of them?
Coal mine workers can monitor and relay real-time information to help each other avoid smoke throughout the day, reducing their exposure and supporting their long-term health.
4. Temperature Monitoring
Coal mines have wide temperature ranges based on location and depth. As you might expect, extreme temps enhance the negative impacts of coal mine fire smoke on employees.
Working long hours in a hot environment is dizzying and exhausting enough, but adding the smoke makes the conditions nearly unbearable.
A bitter-cold environment leads to shorter breathing patterns and a lack of coordination, both of which get amplified by smoke. Trying to take quick breaths in a cloud of smoke is no way to make a living. If you can’t get rid of it, regulating the temperature is the next best solution.
Site managers must provide sufficient ventilation, coverings and breathable uniforms to keep employees comfortable and maintain a tolerable temperature. A generous break schedule will also boost employee morale and limit smoke exposure.
5. A New Approach to Analytics
Analyzing air quality and other threats isn’t a new concept in coal mining, but the industry could benefit from a new approach to said analytics.
Rather than viewing air quality problems in isolation after the fact, an integrated monitoring system that utilizes more data and input from artificial intelligence (AI) may be the answer. These are the three parts:
- Internal data sources: These include safety procedures, training programs, site maintenance, incident reports and other existing data.
- External data sources: These include industry research, social media, weather, demographics and other third-party information.
- Telematics and wearables: These include vital sign scans, environmental monitoring, movement tracking, equipment operations, onboarding and other information provided by devices with built-in AI.
Analyzing internal data sources with the other two data categories in mind can help mining companies identify hidden behavioural patterns or connected safety hazards. Site managers can then make more accurate predictions and intervene before an incident occurs.
6. Increased System Awareness
Coal mines rely on ventilation and alarm systems to regulate and monitor air quality, but they can only do their jobs if they remain in solid working order. A frequent maintenance and testing schedule for these systems will greatly reduce air hazards and create a breathable working environment.
Accounting for each worker’s location is also a crucial part of mining safety. Wearable technology makes that task easy, but companies must also ensure miners use them as intended. If they leave the devices lying around in random places, they serve no purpose.
Site managers that integrate more advanced systems must update employee training to include new safety procedures and equipment usage instructions.
7. Emergency and Evacuation Procedures
Every coal mining company must have frequently updated emergency and evacuation plans in place.
Employees should practice them often — even the veterans of the business — and new hires should also be required to execute them a predetermined number of times before their onboarding is complete. The impact of coal mine fire smoke on lung health is one of many risks that justify such high standards.
When your entire workforce knows what to do in an emergency, they can escape the situation while minimizing exposure to pollutants and other injuries. Plus, everyone can do their jobs with more peace of mind.
Help Create a Safer Mining Industry
Coal mining is safer than ever, as the industry reported just five deaths in 2020 compared to 1,489 in 1900. However, the impact of coal mine fire smoke is a lingering problem with long-term implications.
Miners don’t leave the smoke behind at work — they carry it with them for the rest of their lives.
Coal mining will never be truly safe for workers until we learn how to avoid the toxic smoke it produces. Advanced equipment, more proactive monitoring systems and a new-age approach to data analytics will help you create a cleaner environment for your staff and a safer industry for workers worldwide.
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