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  • Writer's pictureMichael Peelish, Esq.

Data Suggests Mine Operators Need to Focus on Miner’s Mental Health

Mine operators are good at paying attention to data. Operators review their mine's tons or yards per shift, maintenance downtime, hours of tire life, etc., etc., etc. However, when it comes to healthcare or workers compensation data about subjects like mental health, operators throw the data under the proverbial haul truck without taking a moment to review.

NIOSH kicked off the Miner Health Program (MHP) in October 2021 as a long-term, systematic effort to understand and improve the health and well-being of all miners through focused integration of research, transfer of findings, evaluation, and community engagement. The second meeting of the MHP was held virtually on March 10th and involved a presentation by Dr. Michel Lariviere and Dr. Zuzsanna Kerekes regarding a 5-year research project to develop a mental health strategy studying the mental health of miners and other workers at Vale’s Sudbury operations in Ontario, Canada using several clinical instruments. The virtual meeting had a 30-minute break out session that allowed for group discussion which was helpful to receive other points of view.

Why did Vale agree to and fund this intrusive research project and why did the USW agree to support its members’ participation? Data showed that of disability claims related to mental health across the province, 78% were short term while 67% were long-term. Vale’s data for its Ontario operations showed that one in four disability claims was associated with mental health. Despite those statistics, there is very little research done on predictors, facilitators, and barriers to mental health in mining. Thus, Vale embarked on an ambitious journey.

A total of 2,224 participants (56%) from Vale across 25 work sites responded to a series of four questions, and of those who participated the average was 43.6 years old, with 17.2 years of mining experience.

Q1: Participants were asked about their state of mental health and the well-being of Vale employees? 56% responded they are experiencing enough symptoms to pay some attention; 18% showed mild levels of depressive symptoms; 10% experienced thoughts of suicide, but weren’t planning to carry those thoughts out; and 10% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Q2: Participants were asked what factors most strongly relate to the mental health and wellbeing of workers? 30% experienced “fairly bad sleep” averaging 6.2 hours of sleep and 28% screened positively for signs of burnout. Miners are telling management that they’re tired. The research did show that employees were committed to the work they were doing and perceived that their physical safety on the job to be greater than their psychological safety. Additional factors impacting workers’ mental health included anxiety, which in itself is exacerbated by things like chronic pain, physical illness, depression or stress, a previous mental health diagnosis, drug use (self-medicating), and workload. The participants did note that social support from family and friends helped counteract negative influences.

Q3: What factors predict an absence from work? Participants listed working more than eight hours, reporting symptoms of burnout, engaging in hazardous work, feeling discriminated at work, commuting more than an hour to work, and a mental health diagnosis or treatment as the top factors.

Q4: What helps get people back to work after they’ve been away for an injury or illness-related absence? 66% of participants cited access to good medical support as the most significant factor. Other factors included receiving appropriate and timely medical treatment, family support, modified work, supervisory support, and assistance from Vale’s occupational disease committee. Financial need came up as the top barrier to workers returning to work since workers felt like they had to go back to work because they were financially struggling which makes for a riskier return-to-work situation.

So now what did Vale do with these new data points? The company used the findings to introduce new mental health policies into the workplace also creating a new mental health strategy, called MINES for Minds – MINES being an acronym for monitor, intervene, normalize, encourage, support. Its three-pronged approach will (1) focus on identifying and minimizing risk factors for workers and the company, (2) promoting protective factors and eliminating the stigma of mental health, and (3) optimizing support services that help workers stay at or return to work.

So now what do mine operators, safety professionals, and operations management do with these research finding? That is something that you will need to sort out by reviewing the four simple questions and the responses. There may be some ideas in this information that may assist your operation. Talk to employees more openly about how they feel and ask if they are “present” today to go to work safely. Consider introducing a mental aid first aid course in 24-hour refresher training. Also, ensuring folks returning to work after an absence are fit for duty and in a good state of mind without feeling they must be there for another reason such as financial. Looking at schedules may be another idea. Providing traveling miners a fair per diem to remove the anxiety of being away from home 4 nights a week, or altering the work schedules so they start late on a Monday. Or giving miners today a fuel bonus for the long distances they may have to travel.

Regardless, how you feel about this topic of mental health, do not ignore the potential to improve your operations overall performance and retention of workers by showing some empathy, not sympathy, for workers needing a hand up. From what I have learned over the years managing human resources and safety for publicly-traded mining companies, if you do embark on exploring opportunities to address mental health, work with her healthcare provider and/or consultant who have knowledge and programs to assist you, and go slow. This is not like a P/F drug or alcohol test. As one of the participants in our breakout session said, “it is time to get uncomfortable”, and they are right.

Based on the safety background and experience of the firm’s members, part of the firm’s practice is conducting safety and health assessments at MSHA and OSHA facilities.

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