2.0 Issue: Silicosis at Hemlo
Context: Over the years, labour groups and NGOs have raised concerns about Hemlo employees suffering from silicosis –a lung disease caused by exposure to silica dust.
What is silicosis?
Inhaled silica particles cause inflammation in the lungs and lead to the development of fibrous masses that impede breathing. Silicosis can cause tuberculosis and also progress to lung cancer and death, and may take 10-15 years ("latency period") before detection is possible. Mining for several types of minerals, including gold, can expose workers to silica dust, but this can be prevented with appropriate safety measures.
How many miners at Hemlo have been affected with silicosis? What caused their silicosis?
During the 23 years that Hemlo has been in operation, four cases of silicosis have been confirmed. In each case, the employee had worked at other mines for many years, making it impossible to determine the true "source" of the silicosis. However, current legal requirements attribute the responsibility for the disease to the last employer, hence Hemlo.
Although there were various allegations regarding the cause of the silicosis, tests by independent groups did not find any evidence that practices or operations at Hemlo caused silicosis, and determined that preventative measures at the mine are adequate to protect worker safety.
According to the 2007 No Dirty Gold Report, "workers diagnosed with silicosis by X-ray but without overt symptoms were also ineligible for reassignment to work with less exposure to silica." Is this true?
Not true. The four workers with confirmed silicosis were offered alternative work assignments based on doctor recommendations. However, each worker chose to remain at their prior work assignment.
What actions were taken to address the silicosis issue at Hemlo?
Hemlo has conducted a comprehensive silica review with independent medical experts, testing facilities, and government oversight. The results identified several areas for improvement, but ultimately concluded there is no "silicosis epidemic."
Based on our proactive response to the issue –including health screenings, independent reviews, and remedial action plans– we believe Hemlo stakeholders are generally satisfied with the company's response to the issue.
What is the current state of silica exposure at Hemlo?
Hemlo has an extensive Silica Control Program, which includes training and education for all employees, an air testing program, a tracking and communication plan, medical surveillance and control methods.
The mine, in conjunction with government agencies and independent testing companies, regularly reviews silica programs and workers' exposure rates. In 2007, the incidence rate of government exceedances decreased by 8% compared to 2006, while the incidence of "company action level" exceedances (which are more rigorous that the government levels) increased by 1%.
The 2007 annual silica dust review reported a marked reduction in overall worker silica exposure, but indicated there are areas for improvement. Work taking place to address these issues in 2008 includes:
Ventilation and ergonomic redesign of the assay lab
- New washing procedures at the transfer tower resulting in a visible reduction of dust. Engineering controls are under review
- Installation of engineering controls at the coarse ore bins
- Education and monitoring to ensure proper wear and usage of required respiratory protection
- Supervisor review of silica investigation results with crews, as well as formal job observations of affected employees to ensure proper practices