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Commentary

Sudbury cluster plays key role in health and safety

David Robinson, Economist
Laurentian University
[email protected]

Mining is still one of the most dangerous industries in the world. According to the International Labour Organization, while mining employs around one per cent of the global labour force, it generates eight per cent of fatal accidents. As bad as it seems, there has been an enormous improvement. Safety in mining is now an obsession.

Safety has become a key target for the mining industry in developed countries, and standards are rising around the world. Some countries have a long way to go. China, for example, accounts for 40 per cent of global coal output, but 80 per cent of the world’s mining deaths. The artisanal and small mining sector, which may have as many as 50 million people working in it, is largely unregulated and undocumented. The number of deaths and injuries in the sector are unknown.

What is known at the global level is that health and safety progress in the mining sector has been astonishing. The deadliest year in U.S. coal mining history, for example, was 1907, when an estimated 3,242 deaths occurred. The number fell to 19 in 2002. China is claiming an 80 per cent reduction in deaths in its coal industry. In 2013, the Mining Association of Canada reported a reduction in fatalities of more than 80 per cent over just 12 years.

It is not a surprise that Canada has registered new lows. The Canadian mining industry has always played an important role in mine safety as well as productivity, environmental management and reclamation.

As deaths decline, attention shifts to other measures. For years, mines have reported monthly counts of days lost to injuries and the number of work-related injuries has been falling. The next challenge is mining-related occupational diseases. Research from the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) shows that over 400 new cancers from mining exposure in the past are diagnosed each year in Canada. Mining companies are now paying serious attention to low-level hazards with long-term health effects. The World Health Organization now identifies mining-related occupational diseases in its International Statistical Classification of Disease.

These changes have been driven to a large extent by unions lobbying for increasingly stringent safety regulations. In Sudbury, Homer Seguin, a member and leader of the United Steelworkers, is a local hero for his 45-year campaign for worker safety. Seguin helped create a culture of safety in Sudbury and in Canadian mining. His work led to changes in provincial and national legislation, the creation of the regional cancer centre in Sudbury, and five workers’ health and safety centres around Ontario.

Safety and health in mining was driven by workers’ organizations, but it needed the active participation of governments, companies, and the entire mining supply chain to succeed. Economic instruments were crucial. Mandatory compensation systems and experience rating, for example, have given employers strong economic incentives to ensure workplaces are safe. Furthermore, as researchers Asfaw, Mark and Pana-Cryan have shown, mine profits are higher where injury rates are lower. In the developed economies, at least, health and safety are good business.

The commitment to safety advocated by Homer Seguin and others has become part of the culture of Canadian mining companies. That culture now extends from government offices and mines to the shops of local mining suppliers. The supply sector has responded to the demand for safety with improved practices in its own shops and with constant improvements in technology to make workplaces safer. The commitment to safety is now built into a wide range of products and services that are exported around the world.

Health and safety are themselves becoming export products, supported by a growing cluster of regional health and safety organizations. These organizations supply knowledge in the form of research, training and conferences like the recent Lung Cancer and Prevention in Mining Conference hosted by Laurentian University, MIRARCO and the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH).

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