May 23, 2024

Hazards for Women in Mining

By Ed Rutkowski

In 2021, men comprised an estimated 85 percent of the global mining workforce of 214 million workers, according to the International Labor Organization. But although women’s participation in the mining industry remains low, data from the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) show their numbers are gradually increasing in many countries. And as the presence of women workers becomes more common at mining work sites, employers need to address the occupational health and safety issues that disproportionately affect women, including reproductive hazards.

A presentation by Courtney Gendron, MPH, CIH, at AIHA Connect 2024 offered a comprehensive review of occupational hazards at mines and how each affects women in pregnancy. Gendron, the lead occupational hygienist in WSP's Mine Environment Group in British Columbia, began by explaining how the differences between women’s bodies and men’s affect OHS risks. Historically, Gendron said, it was believed that women’s bodies were essentially the same as men’s except in size and reproductive organs. But the differences are much greater, affect every tissue and organ system, and have major implications for disease susceptibility, diagnosis, and treatment.

Gendron noted the importance of including women in studies of even male-dominated industries such as mining. In research, the male body is considered the default, as exhibited by the so-called “reference man”—an individual who is male, Caucasian, 20 to 30 years old, 70 kilograms (154 pounds) in weight, and 170 centimeters (5.5 feet) tall. The reference man was originally used as a benchmark in research on the effects of radiation.

Pregnancy amplifies the differences between genders, making women even more susceptible to occupational hazards than the reference man, Gendron said. Women who are pregnant have greater risk for edema and fatigue. Their higher heart rates and breathing rates mean they can inhale more toxins. Their ligaments and tendons become softer and more prone to injury. The expanding uterus increases back strain and decreases blood flow to the sciatic nerve. The fit of personal protective equipment, typically poor for women in general, is even worse for pregnant women. These susceptibilities don’t even account for risks to the fetus, which may be more vulnerable to chemicals, especially during the first trimester. Workplace contaminants can also get into breast milk, potentially affecting breastfeeding mothers and their infants.

Gendron recommended that work sites create a health register that lists all hazards workers can be exposed to, including reproductive hazards. The health effects of reproductive hazards include infertility, miscarriage, premature labor, low birth weight, and birth defects. Noise, heat stress, ionizing radiation, whole-body vibration, lead, and stress levels are among the reproductive hazards common to mines.

Pregnant and breastfeeding workers at mines should avoid continuous exposure to noise, Gendron said. Noise exposure increases risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension and may decrease oxytocin, a hormone integral to milk let down for breastfeeding. “If you’re going to be pumping or expressing breast milk in the workplace, it needs to be in a quiet area,” Gendron said. For the fetus, low-frequency sounds or loud bursts can lead to low birth weight and preterm delivery.

Little data exists on the effects of whole-body vibration on pregnant women and fetuses, and because no safe limit can be derived from the scientific literature, OEHS professionals must often resort to removing pregnant women from work. “We need some more research in this area for sure,” Gendron said.

Removal from work or reassignment to another position are problematic solutions because they increase stress levels, which are already elevated for pregnant women at mines. “It can be uncomfortable to be pregnant in a male-dominated workplace,” Gendron said. She recommended that OEHS professionals involve workers in any discussions related to work modifications or reassignment.

Gendron also addressed workplace policies and cultural issues that can make pregnancy and maternity more challenging. According to IGF, the optimum length of adequately paid parental leave is 7 to 12 months; most global mining companies provide a minimum of 4.5 months, and all provide 5 to 20 days of paternity leave. But women may have difficulty meeting the minimum hours worked to become eligible for paid leave. Many women in mines are part-time workers, typically because they already shoulder nearly all the burden of unpaid care work at home. Gendron also noted that “there is still a social stigma associated with men taking paternity leave,” with many men worrying that they may be overlooked for raises and promotions.

To address the challenges associated with protecting pregnant workers in mines, Gendron urged OEHS professionals to establish written standards and guidance, engage the organization’s leaders in discussions on the topic, institute training on reproductive hazards, and improve awareness of the issues affecting pregnant women. OEHS professionals should also ensure that medical and emergency services are readily accessible and that all elements related to protecting pregnant workers are integrated into the company’s management systems.

OEHS protections, Gendron suggested, are critical for reproductive rights. “Equal opportunity does not exist if women are penalized for participating in something”—procreation—“that’s fundamental to our society,” she said.

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

Read more coverage of AIHA Connect 2024.

For Further Reading

Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development: “Women and the Mine of the Future Global Report” (April 2023).

International Labor Organization: “Women in Mining: Towards Gender Equality” (September 2021).

The Synergist: “Don't Just ‘Shrink It and Pink It’: Common PPE Challenges for Women” (March 2023).

The Synergist: “The Data on DEI: Numbers Reveal the Workplace Experiences of Women and Minority Groups” (March 2024).

The Synergist: “Windows of Susceptibility: Do OELs Really Protect Workers from Reproductive and Developmental Effects?” (June/July 2016).