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Mining in the Philippines and the effects on Occupational Health and Safety of Mine Workers*

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Overview of mining operations in the Philippines

The Philippines is rich in mineral deposits. According to estimates, the Philippines have the fifth largest reserve of gold and copper in the world. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) estimated gold reserves to be at 967,180,197 MT while Copper was put at 5,301,507,657 MT (2002). According to the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) in 2005, the Philippines have a total of USD 840B worth of mineral wealth just waiting to be exploited.

The National Statistical Coordinating Body (NSCB) in July 31, 2006 pegged total gross value added (GVA) to be at Php 64B (USD 1.3B), while the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) stated USD 820M total cost of mining contributions to total exports in 2005.

The Mining sector employs only a fraction of the total labor force in the country. According to the July 2006 government census, 134,000 are employed in the mining and quarrying sector, comprising a mere 0.4% of the total employed.

In 2002 there were only 7 mining tenements approved, namely for Philex Mining Corporation, Lepanto Victoria Mine, Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation, Taganito Mining, Hinatuan-Cagdianao Mining Corporation and Benguet Corporation Masinloc Mine with a total tenement area of 23,106 hectares or a mere 5% of the total mineralized area. But as of November 2005, the number of approved tenements has ballooned to 383 with 2,229 petitions pending approval.

Along with this are 27 Exploration Permits (EP's) covering 99, 323.26 has. and Mineral Production Sharing Agreements (MPSA) covering 373,623.43 has. Mining operations is on the upswing since the Supreme Court in 2004, reversed its negative decision on 100% ownership of mining companies operating in the Philippines. An estimated Php 366B (USD 6.7B) in investments are expected to come from the 24 priority mining projects approved by the MGB as of 2005.

According to the Roadmap for the Philippine Minerals Industry released by the MGB in 2003, by the year 2009, there will be 455 EP's or 1,685% increase from the number in 2005. In the same document, the number of MPSA is expected to have a 560% increase from the present 228, reaching an estimated total of 1,275, with mine exports reaching USD 2B or a 243% increase compared to USD 820M total exports in 2005. The MGB is also expecting employment in the sector to reach 590,000 by 2009 or a 440% jump.

The threat to human life

‘We have seen the devastating effects of some of the mining operations: the spillages of mine tailings in Boac, Marinduque, in Sipalay and Hinobaan, in Negros Occidental, in Itogon, Benguet, and mudflows in Sibutad, Zamboanga del Norte. The adverse social impact on the affected communities, especially on our indigenous brothers and sisters, far outweigh the gains promised by large-scale mining corporations. Our people living in the mountains and along the affected shorelines can no longer avail of the bounty of nature.'
Statement of Catholic Bishops of the Philippines, 1998

Mining poses tremendous risks to life and limb, not only to miners but to the community as well. Countless accidents have happened and have affected thousands of miners in our country, directly or indirectly caused by hazardous mining operations. There is a very high social cost of mining and the impact on the society is immeasurable.

Occupational health hazards posed by mining to workers are exposure to intense heat, poor ventilation, vibration, dust, fumes, repetitive stress injury (RSI), intense noise, manual handling (e.g. lifting) of heavy machinery and biological and chemical hazards.

Due to the nature of underground mining, miners are constantly exposed to intense heat while hydration is very limited. Miners usually have fluid and salt deficiency due to constant sweating, increased stress on the heart, heat stroke, opacity of the lens and reduced fertility due to high heat.

Poor ventilation robs the body of needed oxygen causing the brain to malfunction and leads to many deaths especially in underground operations.

Vibration on the other hand can cause permanent damage to bones and vibration syndrome or "dead finger" syndrome can lead to gangrene in the hands and fingers. It can also cause digestive problems due to constant shaking of the internal organs, heart problems and disruption of the nervous system.

Mines exposes workers to different types of airborne particulates, making them vulnerable to systemic toxic effects due to the absorption of lead, manganese, cadmium, zinc and other toxic material.

Fumes are emitted by chemicals being used or by the machines being employed during mining operations. Coupled with poor ventilation, this can trigger accidents and cause death to workers.
RSI being a soft-issue disorder is caused by overloading of particular muscle group from repetitive use or maintenance of constrained postures. Miners who suffer from RSI complain of weakness of the affected muscles, heaviness, "pins and needles" sensation and numbness.

Noise or irritating and hazardous sound can cause hearing impairment and/or disrupt body functions like blood circulation and hormone imbalance. Deafness and hearing loss can become irreversible and other non-auditory effects are increased blood pressure and peptic ulcer due to increased gastrointestinal motility.

Manual lifting of materials causes back troubles leading to acute pain. A large percentage of the workers suffer sooner or later from this disorder caused by their type of work.

Because most mines in the Philippines extract gold, the use of sodium cyanide for leaching gold from finely ground ore is frequent. The use of liquid mercury to create gold-amalgam is also wide-spread. Cyanide blocks the transfer of oxygen from the blood to the body tissues. Signs of acute poisoning include rapid breathing, gasping, tremors, convulsions and death. Effects of sublethal poisoning include headache, dizziness and thyroid enlargement.

Government statistics on occupational accidents in the mining sector are very low compared to those of other sectors like manufacturing. In 2000, the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics recorded 78 occupational accidents while in the manufacturing sector recorded 46,683. But in the year 2002 there was a tremendous increase of accidents in the mining industry numbering 822 or 1,053% swell, while the number for the manufacturing decreased to 33, 872.

The government statistics are telling a very dangerous trend for mining, while accidents in the industry used to be only 0.1% (2000) of the total occupational accidents; in 2002 it increased to 1.7% of the total accidents event though only 0.3% of the total labor force was into mining.

The numbers are few due to many reasons aside from the fact that mining is still a very small part of the Philippine economy. Though the Philippines signed ILO convention 176 aimed to for governments to undertake and adopt legislation for implementation of regulation and monitoring of occupational health and safety in mines, in a report by the Bureau of Working Conditions (BWC) released in 2000, there were only 59 accredited working conditions inspector tasked to monitor and inspect more than 700,000 registered enterprise, including mining companies.

Accurate data gathering is impossible with such under staffing. Another reason is the Department of Labor and Employment Order 57-04, citing that companies who employ more than 200 workers are to do self-assessment on matters of adherence to working standards.

This is being exploited by big mining companies like Lepanto Consolidated Mining Corporation.
According to reports from the Lepanto Employees Union, workers who suffered accidents were forced by the management to punch-in as janitors or office staff just to avoid them being registered as absent due to the accident they figured in.

In a study by the IOHSAD released in 1997, gold miners from the Itogon-Suyoc Mine Incorporated showed various symptoms of occupational-related health risks like those stated above. Workers from the mine department, those engaged in drilling, blasting and ore delivery showed high incidence of cough and breathing difficulty due to constant dust exposure.

Excessive sweating was also prevalent among them, along with hypertension and constant muskulo-skeletal pain.

Pro-active intervention needed

Though at present the mining situation in the Philippines seems better compared to China or India, the threat to life and limb of present and future miners are still worrisome. The need for a concerted effort among stakeholders is as urgent as ever to protect and promote the health and safety of mineworkers.

We propose that the monitoring capacity for OHS and working conditions of mines and other enterprise in general should be increase and widened to make timely and pro-active intervention.

Both government and non-government organizations, unions and other key groups should involve themselves in such an endeavor.

We propose that Health and Safety Education should be given primacy to create culture of safety among workers. More collaboration between union and NGO’s should occur in furtherance of the said objective.

The building and strengthening of Health and Safety Committees should be pushed. We propose that in the case of mines wherein not only workers are the stakeholder but the community as well.
Community based HSC should be established.

More research and related literature on OHS in Mines should be done and supported. Although there are existing studies, compared to papers and materials focusing on the environmental effects of mines, informative and substantive studies on OHS in Mines is far behind.

The effects of mines are encompassing. There should be greater solidarity among mine workers around the world, especially in Asia. Solidarity and networking should also be promoted and developed between environmental, community and labor groups to have a more well-rounded approach in dealing with mine issues.

*Briefing on Mining in the Philippines and the effects on Occupational Health and Safety of Mine Workers
Conference on Coal Mining
by Noel Parato Colina, Executive Director IOHSAD
November 21-23, 2006
Renmin University, Beijing, PROC