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Occupational Medicine 2004;54:297–303



Ergonomics in mining
B. McPhee

Abstract Like other areas of occupational health and safety (OHS) ergonomics is evolving and
becoming more integrated into overall work management systems. As we learn more
about the complex interaction between psychosocial and physical factors in the
aetiology of work-related illness and injury the more we rely on managers to ‘get it
right’ if we are to prevent these conditions. Risks to health and safety in the mining
industry posed by longer shift lengths, higher work loads, less task variation and
decision latitude have not really been well researched. Heavy physical workloads and
stresses are still areas of concern, but are likely to be intermittent rather than
constant. Recent research confirms current thinking rather than shedding new light
on the subject. The contribution of slips, trips and falls and increasing age of miners
to manual handling injuries is still not clear. In some cases sedentary work and the
operation of machinery has completely replaced heavy physical work. The issues of
machinery design for operations and maintenance and whole-body vibration
exposures when operating machines and vehicles are becoming more critical. The
link between prolonged sitting, poor cab design and vibration with back and neck
pain is being recognized but has yet to be addressed in any systematic way by the
mining industry. On the plus side some mining companies have well-developed
participative approaches to problem solving and these need to be extended to areas
such as ergonomics.
Key words Ergonomics; manual handling; mining; risk management; vibration.
Received 13 February 2004
Revised 26 February 2004
Accepted 20 April 2004

Introduction and errors. While the prevention of mining disasters and

fatalities is still the highest priority in mining, the
Ergonomics is a science, but it is also a philosophy—a
emphasis is now changing to a broader occupational
way of thinking. It is a user-centred approach to design. It
health and safety (OHS) focus. However, there still
focuses on the design of equipment, processes and
appears to be a poor understanding about the contri-
environments so that tasks and activities required of
bution of ergonomics to mining, the range of factors that
humans are within their limitations, but also make the
it includes and how these might be addressed. The
best use of their capabilities. In the workplace, the
differences in application lie in the different systems that
application of ergonomics promotes health, efficiency
have arisen specifically for mining and that may need to
and well being in workers. Ultimately, it is an applied
be accommodated through planning and design.
science and it needs to respond to real-world needs.
There are a range of emerging issues in ergonomics in
Mining is similar to other heavy industries: the same
mining, mainly arising from changes to work practices
principles apply to machinery and tool design, control
and a drive for greater productivity. Unfortunately, some
rooms, lifting and heavy work, design to reduce the risks
of the practices appear to be at odds with the need to
and consequences from slips, trips and falls, rough rides
improve general OHS.

The OH&S Services Network, PO Box 113, Kurri Kurri NSW 2327, Australia.
Correspondence to: B. McPhee, The OH&S Services Network, PO Box 113, Changes in mining work practices
Kurri Kurri NSW 2327, Australia. Tel: +61 2 4937 5855; fax: +61 2 4937
5844; e-mail: In the last 25 years the practice of mining has changed

Occupational Medicine, Vol. 54 No. 5

© Society of Occupational Medicine 2004; all rights reserved 297

significantly. Physically heavy work is now likely to be machinery and equipment for particular sites and types of
intermittent and limited. Workers still manually install work constantly have to reconsider basic user perform-
overhead pipes, cables, ventilation and roof support ance standards and there is a sense of ‘reinventing the
systems (in underground mines); dismantle and erect wheel’.
conveyor systems; clean up; and maintain machinery. Many large international machinery manufacturers
However, many of these jobs are partially or fully have developed design criteria and they guard these
mechanized and much more time is spent operating closely as commercially sensitive material. The better their
machinery and driving vehicles. Appropriate machinery designs the greater their market edge. However, this does
design is becoming more critical to successful mining, as not provide guidance for purchasers who are often left
is the training and skills of the mineworkers. with a confusing array of conflicting design features when
The move in mining towards longer work hours is part trying to select a machine suitable for their needs and
of a drive for greater worker productivity. A feature of budgets. The machine’s price, its capabilities in terms
many mining jobs now is extended work hours, i.e. shift of power, running costs, availability/costs of spares and
lengths of 10–12 h and generally higher workloads. The replacement parts and its reliability are the most
issues of stress and fatigue are receiving much attention at important features to most purchasers. In some cases
present but the concerns go further than this. Longer brand loyalty may be a factor. Rarely are comprehensive
shifts have highlighted the need for more research and ergonomics specifications included in the list of criteria.
information on the effects of daily exposures to different To make matters worse, good design may be replaced
hazards for 8 h for which there are many standards and with poor design in subsequent models because specific
codes. While some can be adjusted mathematically, there user needs have not been identified and feedback has not
appears to have been little appreciation of the difficulty of be sought.
estimating the impact of physical underloading or In some cases, the mining industry itself has produced
overloading on workers and effects such as fatigue, basic ergonomics dimensions and design criteria for cabs
monotony, errors and musculo-skeletal disorders. As well, particularly for underground mining [13,14]. There are
there appears to have been little, if any, research into the many design criteria that need to be specified and met
role, design and efficacy of work breaks and their impact including design for safe access, operation, operator
on different exposures. These could be critically space, seating, environmental conditions, training and
important in the reduction of risks of injury and ill health maintenance.
and the improvement of worker well-being.
Ergonomics recommends varied work activities to help
overcome the problems of prolonged sitting, heavy work Whole-body vibration (WBV) exposures
or intense concentration. However, in mining the trend
in mining (rough rides)
appears to be towards less rather than more task variety
and many jobs are now much more sedentary. Longer In broad terms we know that a significant number of low
hours of work and perceived increases in job demands back and neck injuries in mining have been precipitated
both on a daily and weekly basis are compounding the by ‘rough rides’. In a study in open-cut and underground
negative effects of these. mines in Australia, WBV exposures in mining personnel
were measured and analysed [15,16].
From the results there appear to be three different
scenarios where symptoms arise. The first is prolonged
Machinery and vehicle cab design
sitting, the second is where injuries result from a one-off
standards severe jolt in an otherwise reasonable ride and the third
Modern OHS legislation requires detailed risk assess- situation is where the onset of pain occurs after an
ment of plant and equipment to ensure that it is designed, extended period of moderate to severe jolts and jars.
manufactured, supplied, installed and used in such a way These exposures are believed to contribute to low back
that it poses no significant risks to the health and safety of and neck injury and may also be recognized by operators
workers associated with it [1–3]. There is extensive as damaging. However, the question still arises: ‘how
information on ergonomics design criteria in textbooks much is too much?’. At this point it is difficult to answer
[4–6] but, by necessity, most OHS regulations and this question although rides with a vibration dose value
standards for heavy equipment define ‘design’ only in (VDV) of ≥ 17 are likely to cause injury if exposure is
terms of broad principles to reduce risks to health and prolonged and/or repeated. Interestingly, in this study,
safety [7]. Standards that specify design parameters are there was a reasonable correlation between operators’
usually those that deal with basic human dimensions that ratings of ride roughness and the VDV, as Figure 1
do not change significantly over time [8–12]. Even these indicates [15,17].
may become out-of-date or inconsistent with current Results also indicated that the type of vehicle, its
practice quite quickly. Therefore, risk assessments on speed and condition (particularly its age and suspension

Figure 1. The relationship between operators’ ratings of ride roughness and the measured vibration dose value.

system) and the condition of roads strongly influenced cognitive abilities decline, although these are not as
ride roughness. obvious until the mid-50s [21,24]. Many mine workers
Controls recommended included: regular monitoring over the age of 45 years are likely to demonstrate a
of vibration levels; operator training; limiting speed; decreased physical and mental capacity, especially where
prompt communication and correction of road problems; new or different demands are placed on them. Despite
effective road maintenance programs; appropriate design this, research indicates that, overall, older workers
of vehicles including the isolation of the cab in vehicles perform as well as younger workers [25], although there
where vibration can be excessive; effective maintenance of seems to be little research into the impact of the ‘healthy
vehicles; task variation; and regular breaks out of the seat worker effect’ or ‘self selection’. It is plausible to assume
[15,17]. There is little evidence that the mining industry that these are strong influences on mine workers’ demo-
has acknowledged or addressed these issues as a whole in graphics and somewhat offset the effects of aging.
order to reduce vibration exposures. An additional aspect to consider is the assessment of
risks when undertaking demanding work and the physical
and mental preparation for it. Job knowledge, skills and
Manual handling and other heavy work better coping strategies are important in this regard in
older workers [25] and it is likely that it contributes to
more conservative and safer work practices in older
Worker capacities and age workers.
There is strong evidence to suggest that task and
workplace design factors are the most important in
Combined effects of different exposures on the
controlling the occurrence and severity of musculo-
musculo-skeletal system
skeletal injuries. Much less is known about the
contribution of individual and organizational factors, The combined effects on the musculo-skeletal system of
although these are believed to be important [18,19]. Age irregular, heavy work and sedentary work such as
is one factor for which there appears to be conflicting operating machinery appear not to have been addressed
information and where a lot more research is needed. by researchers, possibly because it is so difficult to control
Mines may vary considerably in the average age of their and quantify these different exposures at work and to
workforce depending on where they are located and the draw conclusions on causality. However, this combin-
age of the mine. In some cases the average is 40 years and ation could be more damaging than constant, self-paced
this leads to questions regarding the impact of this on physical work on its own because there is a reduced
work capacity. Physical capacity decreases with increasing training effect.
age [20–22]. This is due to decreasing physiological Another area that seems to need further research is that
capacity, often in association with the effects of of the contribution of slips, trips and falls to manual
musculo-skeletal disorders such as back, shoulder and handling injuries either as one of several initial ‘causes’
knee injuries [23]. Likewise sensory, perceptual and or precipitating factors or as contributing to the

exacerbation of an injury. Part of the problem is that most handling above shoulder height [23,26,27] (see Figure
injury statistics list ‘agent of injury’ and ‘employee 2);
activity’ separately and not in combination. However, in · range through which weight is lifted [23];
reality, the dynamic nature of manual handling means · origin and destination of lifts [23];
that several forces are usually at work. Uneven floors,
slippery surfaces, narrow, cramped or otherwise
· postures assumed in order to lift (bent, and bent and
twisted postures are the ones to which most risk is
inadequate access and poor lighting are often found attached) [23,28];
together with manual handling tasks in mining. Attention
to all these areas may be required.
· speed of movement [29].
Moment, bent and twisted postures and speed of
movement appear to be the physical factors that create
the greatest risks for injury.
Load factors in manual handling in mining
For repetitive lifting, added factors are:
Weight of objects is a big issue in mining, especially in the
coal industry in Australia where aluminium is not · frequency of lifts [30];
permitted to be used underground. Therefore, it is · cumulative loading
duration of lift [19];
impractical in some situations to consider reducing the · (leading to fatigue) [26].
weight of certain items. As a result, other approaches to
reducing load have had to be examined and this has been Identifying high risk manual handling tasks
useful in understanding and controlling manual handling Determining and matching job demands with the range
hazards and risks overall. The load experienced by an of capacities of employees is particularly important in
individual is influenced not just by the nature of the manual handling, but is also very difficult. Where job
object to be lifted but also by design, organizational and demands exceed the individual’s capacity to meet them,
personal factors. errors, fatigue, stress and injuries may result. In the short
Load should not be confused with weight. Load is term, individual workers may cope with demands that
force. The weight of an item may be considerable, but exceed their capabilities in one or more of the following
with appropriate lifting aids the force required to move or ways:
hold it might be minimal.
Principal physical factors that have been recognized for
some time are:
· practices;
short cuts in work procedures leading to unsafe

· with
consistently working at a higher pace than is healthy,
· distance of load from the body (moment), including an increased risk of chronic or accumulated
fatigue and injury especially as they age;
· self-selection out of the job by those who are unable to
meet work demands imposed.
Therefore, it is important to establish which tasks have
the highest risks for injury or accidents for the majority of
workers. This is where participatory approaches to risk
assessment and management can be most useful.

Physical and psychosocial factors in

work-related disorders
Physical disorders may not arise purely from physical
stresses. Psychosocial factors can contribute to the
development of symptoms in some individuals at
particular times [18,27,31,32]. The interrelationship
between job and personal factors in the development of
disorders in the workplace is complex. In order to
understand these issues, managers have to examine work
and its organization more broadly and understand how
various factors may interact. In some ways it is easier now
as there is considerable crossover between management
Figure 2. Height ranges for lifting actions—after Pheasant and Stubbs and ergonomics theories and practice. In ergonomics it
[27]. has been variously referred to as organizational design

years [24]. They now are proving to be an interesting and

productive method for systematically identifying work-
place ergonomics problems and developing solutions. The
concept of ‘participatory ergonomics’ has been promoted
for ~20 years [35] and refers to the cooperative
interchange between expert and non-expert to find
satisfactory solutions to a range of problems especially
where there needs to be trade-offs and compromises. It
arose from the need to involve workers, who did not have
an expert working knowledge of ergonomics, in the
process of change and occurred simultaneously in Asia,
Europe and North America. It has proven useful in
helping organizations find real ergonomics solutions in
the workplace and is another application of macro-
Figure 3. Karasek model—adapted from Karasek and Theorell [33]. Participatory ergonomics takes many forms. One that
the author has found useful in mining is the participative
and management (ODAM), systems ergonomics and risk assessment workshop. This forum allows a focus
now macro-ergonomics. group to devote uninterrupted time to a problem using a
One illustration of this is the proposed link between systematic approach with a view to solving it. In particular
stress, ill health and work. Known sometimes as the it allows ergonomics issues to be aired with respect to the
Karasek model, it argues that job demands need to be wider work system and therefore provides a perspective
balanced with a degree of job control (decision latitude) that may not be possible when an ergonomist works
by the worker. Those employees who have high demands as conventional consultant. It also gives the company
placed on them but who have little say in how and when a documented starting point for change [36]. This
the work will be completed are the most likely to be at risk approach has the added advantage that systems safety
of developing psychological or physical disorders [33]. personnel understand the process and it can be integrated
Figure 3 illustrates this. into a company’s safety program.
A modifying influence in this theory can be social Risk assessments can be carried out on tasks, locations,
support at work. It is argued that support, or the lack of it, roles or processes but using job steps, tasks or activities is
can either reduce or magnify the effects of problems at the most common approach. They involve as many key
work. Conversely, those who have high demands and a stakeholders as is feasible because a crucial factor in their
high degree of control over how they meet those demands effectiveness is the availability of relevant knowledge and
contribute to what Senge calls the ‘learning organisation’ expertise of a cross-section of people who are familiar
[34]. There are a number of issues that flow from this with a particular work situation. Outcomes are critically
view, most notably how ergonomics fits with OHS and the dependent on the team being representative and pro-
cause–effect relationship in occupational disorders. viding a balanced view at a level of expertise appropriate
to the nature of the subject under review. The ergonomist
as the facilitator is independent within the team but can
Risk management and participatory also provide background information on ergonomics.
This is different to most facilitators’ functions. In some
methods in ergonomics problem solving
cases, specific expertise may be required to advise and/or
The application of the risk management approach for all supplement the core team.
types of risks is becoming increasingly important to In addition this process can be used for training,
reduce the probability that corporate objectives will be disseminating information and successfully achieving
jeopardized by unforeseen events. The focus is one of change in complex areas such as ergonomics. It can also
positive and directed due diligence rather than negative provide the opportunity for full and constructive
compliance and for many mining companies this is a consultation with all stakeholders, something that is
significant change in direction. Risk management difficult and time-consuming to achieve with other
techniques, commonly used in business and safety processes.
management systems, can be adapted easily to ergo-
nomics. They have the added advantage that systems
safety personnel understand the process and can
integrate it into a company’s OHS program. Conclusions
Participative techniques have been used successfully by 5,0,0,0,0Mining work practices are changing and
designers and in safety management systems for many therefore the hazard exposures for mine workers are

changing. Longer shift lengths and fatigue, mental Steered Vehicles MDG No.1, July 1995. Sydney: Department
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