Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Health / Safety

Underground not your ideal workplace

October 20, 2010
By Jayleen Heft

After more than two months of darkness 2,000 feet below the earth in Chile, 33 gold and copper miners were rescued in a gripping, internationally televised rescue earlier this month. Having survived in such a dangerous environment for 70 days, they reportedly emerged in surprisingly good health.

The rescue of the miners in Chile highlights the need for ERHS research and training to establish occupational health and safety around the globe.

Faculty and students in CSU’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences were especially captivated by the unfolding drama. The mining tragedy presented a real-life example of an environment or workplace with contaminants and stressors that may cause sickness and injury – the overall focus of ERHS research and study.

Sensory deprivation, despair

“Hazards from being underground for 70 days would be similar to confinement in a sensory deprivation chamber without light and with likely intense despair and panic,” says Kenneth Blehm, associate dean and professor of environmental health.

“Remember that during the first 17 days or so, the miners had no contact with the outside world. They had to assume that rescuers were attempting to reach them. For more than two weeks, the miners had a limited amount of food, water, and light and no assurance that anyone on the surface was aware that they survived the collapse. I don’t think you can begin to imagine how dark it is underground. You cannot see anything regardless of how close it is to you.”

Mining full of health hazards

And that was just one of the challenges faced by the trapped miners. General environmental health hazards faced by miners on a day-to-day basis include:

  • Dust and noise exposure
  • Entry and exit risks (usually via elevators or other lift systems)
  • Oxygen deficiency if the mine is not well ventilated or if ventilation fails
  • Accumulations of flammable/explosive gas like methane or exposure to gases like radon (depending on rock formations)
  • Flooding and moisture-related issues, like mold and fungus growth
  • Heavy machinery hazards

ERHS works closely with OSHA

Understanding and mitigating potential environmental hazards to human health is important in all workplaces – not just those 2,000 feet underground.

ERHS faculty work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to provide no-cost consultations to businesses to identify and solve health and safety issues. While none of the ERHS faculty have been to the Chilean mining operation, they have been involved with health and safety consultations in and around Colorado mines.

“We have attempted to identify and help solve health and safety issues primarily with surface milling operations,” Blehm says.

Inhalation of dust, lung disease

While the news out of Chile has been positive, the eldest miner, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, needed treatment for pneumonia and silicosis, a lung disease caused by heavy inhalation of dust. Two others had silicosis, which is common among miners.  
Health professionals are prepared to treat a host of health conditions caused by their entrapment from skin infections to post-traumatic stress disorder.

As an example of one of many global challenges facing industry, labor, workers, and communities, the Chilean mining disaster reminds us of the importance of understanding and mitigating potential environmental hazards to human health in all workplaces – not just those found 2,000 feet underground.