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Canadian Public Health Association

Working underground

Miners have frequently been victims of underground tragedies. In Springhill, Nova Scotia, for example, an explosion at a coal mine in 1891 killed 125 miners (dust in the shafts was thought to be the cause but the ignition point was never found); in 1956 an explosion killed 39 miners, and 88 were trapped and later rescued (the explosion was triggered after mine train cars derailed and hit a power line, igniting coal dust in the air); and in 1958 a mine collapsed, trapping all 174 miners inside; 100 are rescued and 74 killed.

The Drummond Mine Horror
The Drummond Mine Horror, June 1873.
Credit: NSARM Prints Old & Rare Collection: 1997-233 no. 8

Miners are not only killed below ground. Above ground coal miners die from silicosis, black lung and other related diseases caused by breathing coal dust. Gold miners can fall victim to silicosis and sometimes to arsenic poisoning. In the 1970s, silicosis, asbestosis and various cancers started appearing in workers everywhere: in asbestos miners in Newfoundland and Quebec, smelter workers in B.C., uranium miners in Elliot Lake, Ontario. In 1974, uranium miners in Elliot Lake went on strike because of the high incidence of lung cancer and silicosis.

Knowledge of slow-developing illnesses such as silicosis fundamentally changed thinking about safety in the Canadian workplace, and put "health" into "health and safety." During the 1950s and 1960s, the union representing the majority of miners in Ontario began to actively negotiate for improved health and safety conditions and for access to more data about the health of its membership. In 1969, as a result of a strike and the collective bargaining process, the miner's union and INCO, the largest mining interest in the province, agreed to establish joint health and safety committees. The result was epidemiological reviews of the mining workforce that confirmed findings of increased incidence of some cancers among miners and established a probable connection between lung cancer and work in uranium and gold mining.

Rescuing Party in the Mine
Rescuing Party in the Mine, 1873.Credit: NSARM Prints Old & Rare Collection: 1997-233 no. 8

Asbestos fibres, when inhaled in significant quantities, can cause asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs which makes breathing difficult), mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity) and lung cancer, according to Health Canada. The risks associated with asbestos are greatest for workers in industries which produce and use asbestos, such as mining and milling. Chrysotile asbestos is still today mined in Quebec and sold to mainly developing countries such as India and China. While chrysotile asbestos is generally accepted to be less potent and do less damage to the lungs than amphibole asbestos, there has been a world wide movement to ban the mining and the use of chrysotile asbestos. CPHA has called for a ban on the mining, transformation and export of chrysotile asbestos.

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