Like any responsible employer, we take steps to minimise occurrences of illnesses that develop as a result of conditions and exposures in our workplaces. Because of the nature of our business, we are especially vigilant of diseases caused by exposure to excessive dust, fume, noise, manual handling, vibration and to all forms of radiation. Our goal is no new cases of occupational illness. To support this, our occupational health policy and performance standards, coupled with our health and wellbeing strategy and targets, have been put in place.
We treat an illness as “occupational” if conditions in our workplace are thought to be the cause or to worsen it. The workplace does not have to be the only cause of the illness.
We introduced our Group-wide occupational health standards in 2004 to improve identification and management of health risks. These performance standards are integrated with our custom-built Health, Safety, Environment and Quality (HSEQ) management system to ensure consistent Group-wide application. We audit implementation of our standards and also benefit from sharing leading practices across the Group.
Some of our workers are more sensitive than others to contracting workplace-related diseases, so we emphasise prevention by personal health monitoring, surveillance and monitoring of the workplace where relevant.
We have rolled out guidance and training in identifying critical health risks, and developed a formal process to identify and track potential and emerging health risks. To aid consistency of data quality, management and analysis, we are implementing a software package, Medgate™, for managing occupational/industrial hygiene and medical surveillance data.
Lung diseases related to long-term dust exposure are now rare in our workforce, demonstrating the effectiveness of our dust control programmes. We have also made significant strides in reducing the number of new cases of occupational asthma within our aluminium smelters, although the potential for chronic disease due to smelter fume exposures remains. As part of our proactive approach, we continue to develop action plans to further reduce the potential risks associated with fumes from aluminium and copper smelting.
Heavy equipment tends to be noisy, which is why noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is still a problem for us. While we recognise that further reductions in noise exposures for our employees will prove challenging, we are committed to continuing to improve our performance. We are developing engineering solutions and alternative ways of doing our work with reduced noise levels. We have re-established a noise community of practice to share learnings and help develop more effective noise improvement strategies.
Musculo-skeletal disorders remain a common form of new occupational illnesses, despite advances in technology rapidly reducing physical demands on our employees. We are continuing to seek ways of engineering out heavy lifting tasks and are reviewing available and proven ergonomic solutions to see if they can be applied more widely. We use a software package, ErgoAnalyst™, to improve the assessment and sharing of controls for manual handling risks.
We have found that implementing our occupational health standards has led to a significant increase in our employees’ awareness of health issues, and to noticeable improvements in performance.
In line with our standards, we continue to work on reducing radiation exposure to as low as reasonably practicable. Our monitoring has not recorded any employee above our 20 milliSievert (mSv) annual exposure limit for over a decade. Rio Tinto’s exposure limit is well below the five year 100mSv and annual 50mSv limits typically found in international protocols.
In recent years, the rate of new cases of occupational illness at Rio Tinto operations has been decreasing. However, integration of the former Alcan operations altered our health exposure profile in 2008.
We are targeting a 30 per cent reduction in the rate of cases of occupational illness per 10,000 employees between 2008 and 2013. The main types of occupational illnesses recorded in our 2008 baseline are related to musculo-skeletal disorders, noise-induced hearing loss and stress. The baseline excludes operations that were divested or flagged for divestment during 2009.
New cases of occupational illness
In 2011 we achieved a 78 per cent improvement in performance compared with 2008, with significant decreases in the number of reported cases of noise-induced hearing loss (76 per cent), musculo-skeletal disorders (78 per cent) and stress (76 per cent).
Ongoing reductions in new cases of occupational illnesses will require further improvements in the management of risks posed by manual handling and noise exposure, as well as supporting healthy lifestyles through workplace wellbeing programmes.
We are also targeting a ten per cent reduction in the number of employees potentially exposed to an average eight hour noise dose of more than 85 decibels between 2008 and 2013. We mitigate the risk of hazardous noise exposure (>85 decibels averaged over eight hours) in the business through implementation of hearing conservation programmes, which includes use of hearing protection. However, reducing noise levels through engineering or similar solutions is our preferred approach. The target is designed to drive noise reduction by means other than the reliance on hearing protection.
Employees potentially exposed to an average 8 hour noise dose of more than 85 dB(A)
In 2011, the rate of employees reported as potentially exposed decreased by 4.3 per cent per 10,000 employees compared with 2008. Progress against this target has been slow; based upon business feedback we are expecting that most of the improvements for this target will occur in 2012 and 2013.