Sunburn or more specifically, the radiation from UV light, can damage DNA in skin cells. Normally DNA is resilient and can deflect heat pretty promptly, thus avoiding damage. However, if a UVB photon (photons are tiny particles of light or electromagnetic energy) happens to hit adjoining base pairs of thymine, or cytosine, in the DNA strand it can cause these pairs to fuse together abnormally. This prevents DNA replication from happening correctly, leading to a genetic mutation. If this mutation happens to be in a section of DNA that codes proteins needed for cellular repair, or tumour suppression, it can cause cancerous cells to develop.*
Excessive exposure to the sun is also proven to age skin faster, cause wrinkles to develop quicker, dry it out causing a dull, leathery appearance, and produce pigmentation changes like freckles and sun spots. Long term exposure to UV rays can also damage eyes. People affected by too much sun can experience sunstroke, which has symptoms like headaches, nausea and dehydration.
Mining, being very much an outdoor profession for many people, is an industry in which people are prone to getting sunburnt as well as developing other types of skin problems. A West Australian skin specialist for example is on record as having noted an increase in the number of mining personnel coming into their clinic with skin problems. Some of the skin problems that are associated with the industry include:
Increased risk for melanomas and eyesight problems – this one gets back to our observation above that many people working in mining environments, particularly open pits, often get far more sun exposure than is healthy. The immediate solution is to use good quality sun screen products, wear UV rated protective clothing, put on a wide brimmed hat over the top of that ubiquitous hard hat, wear protective UV rated eye protection and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Long term, employers can consider measure like reducing work outside during the middle of the day when UV is highest, providing UV protective shade / shelter where possible, training employees to be sun-smart and aware, and providing skin cancer checks.
Increased exposure to chemical hazards – our skin is an amazingly absorbent organ but that means it also absorbs good stuff along with bad stuff. Mine sites can be full of chemicals. Polymeric chemicals for example are used in coal operations. Some of these chemicals can cause chemical burns and poisoning if they come into contact with skin. If inhaled they can cause respiratory problems. Adequate safety training around the safe use of applicable chemicals needs to be standard operating procedure for all mine sites that use any type of chemical. Provision of protective clothing and availability of prompt medical treatment are also important.
Dust exposure – most examples of dust related health issues revolve around inhalation risks – pneumoconiosis, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, mesothelioma and lung cancer. However, it isn't only our lungs that can be adversely impacted by the dust produced in some types of mining operations. Dust can also irritate skin and eyes.Examples of protective measures aimed at decreasing dust risks include protective coverings where possible over equipment that produces dust. Using wet processing methods rather than dry ones where applicable will also reduce dust, as will measures like spraying dusty environments with water. Designing operations to separate people from procedures that cause dust, using remotely controlled equipment, ensuring there is adequate extraction and ventilation to remove dust and various other dust control methods have all been proposed as ways of reducing this hazard for mining personnel.
Excessive amounts of body hair can cause overly heavy sweating, leading to dehydration and conditions such as heat and sunstroke. Not to mention being extremely uncomfortable. People affected by this may opt to have body hair removed but immediate measures to deal with it include remaining well hydrated and ensuring sufficient intake of electrolytes to restore those lost through sweating. Electrolytes carry energy throughout the body in the blood stream so if blood levels of these get too low, it affects organs and body systems that rely on this energy to function correctly.
There are many ways in which people employed in the mining industry can protect their skin. We've mentioned a few throughout the article. Additionally, you should keep an eye on your skin and seek medical advice if you notice any changes in skin spots and moles, or the development of any suspicious looking spots and lesions. Because whilst ultimately it's up to employers to provide a safe working environment, a little bit of pro-active common sense on the part of employees doesn't go astray either. Your skin after all is what protects your insides from the outside and all too often this vitally important organ, your body's largest, gets ignored. Until it causes problems that inconvenience us.
Slop on sunscreen
Slap on a hat
Slip on sunglasses