Mining activities have been carried out by humans for millennia. The first book on mining, (and the health hazards associated with it), was De re metallica by Agricola, published in Switzerland in the sixteenth century. Mining is among the most hazardous of all occupations. Mining activities take place all over the world, and are often a major source of a country's natural wealth.
There are many types of mining operations, ranging from precious metals, such as gold, to other metals, and to minerals such as asbestos, sand, granite, and iron ore. Nonmetal mining can take many forms, including coal mining, which supplies much of the world's energy, and the mining of other materials such as clay, diamonds, semiprecious stones, and related substances.
Mining can take place on the surface of the earth or in underground settings. Depending on where in the world it is carried out, it may utilize nothing more than manual labor, or extraordinarily large and sophisticated mining equipment may be involved. Mining operations can vary in size from several people working alone (often family members) to large facilities employing hundreds of workers.
Traumatic injuries of many types are associated with mining activities. In underground mines there is the ever-present danger of explosion, foul air, water hazards, and other difficulties related to the use of mechanized equipment in confined spaces. Many injuries also take place in the transportation and processing of ore and other mined products.
Depending on the nature of the material being mined, there may also be a risk of damage to various organs. Particularly vulnerable are the lungs, with many lung diseases associated with exposures related to mining. These include the pneumoconioses, or dust diseases of the lung, which are caused by coal, silica, asbestos, kaolin, talc, and many other dusts. There is also a risk of lung cancer posed by some of these materials, and the fumes from diesel vehicles that may be used in underground mining settings also pose a threat. In many underground mining operations there is a risk of exposure to radioactive materials, especially in the form of radon gas, which can lead to high rates of lung cancer.
Although most mining-related lung disease is entirely preventable with the use of good ventilation, respirators when necessary, and other precautions, not only do traumatic injuries remain high, but long-term health effects are still quite common. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) regularly documents these issues, and releases data regarding the respiratory problems related to mining.
Organizations involved with overseeing mining activities include NIOSH, which certifies respirators for use, and the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which directly oversees safety practice at working mines, including oversight of dust sampling. There is still considerable medical research being done related to mining activities.
Mining activities also have a high potential for adversely affecting the general environment through air pollution, the fouling of bodies of water through runoff, or the contamination of soil with waste products.
ARTHUR L. FRANK
Rosen, G. (1943). The History of Miner's Diseases. New York: Schumans.