EHS OutLoud Blog

Tales from the Taconite Mines

Tran Huynh, a student pursuing a Ph.D. in industrial hygiene at the University of Minnesota, was selected as a runner-up in the 2010 Future Leaders in EHS program. This scholarship program was created to support and encourage EHS students as they lead the way in keeping tomorrow’s workers safe. The judging panel recognized Huynh based on her research experience, her excellent grades and references and her dedication to protecting workers from health and safety risks. Below, she shares a special guest blog post about her most recent research in the field.

Tales from the Taconite Mines

by Tran Huynh

Tran HuynhMy decision to enter the industrial hygiene profession has taken me to many interesting places, from secured animal research facilities to one of the largest taconite mines in North America.

Since September, I have been working on a research project assessing workers' exposure taconite dusts under the guidance of my advisor. This exposure assessment project is a component of a larger Taconite Worker Lung Health Study that was funded by the state of Minnesota. As part of the study, University of Minnesota's School of Public Health research teams are investigating the causes of a unique type of lung cancer called mesothelioma among taconite workers in the Mesabi Iron Range in the northeastern part of Minnesota.

My research partner and I are responsible for collecting personal and area air samples at the mines. These samples provide us with information about workers’ current exposure to asbestos and non-asbestos fibers, respirable dust and quartz silica and allow us to evaluate the adequacy of existing dust control measures to protect workers.

The exposure data will later be combined with data from other research teams including historical exposure data dating back in the 1980s, environmental exposure, mortality data, cancer incidence data and respiratory lung survey of workers and their spouses. Analysis of such comprehensive sets of data will help answer many questions, including: Is there a link between exposure to taconite dust and cancer or other health effects? If so, at what levels in occupational setting and in the community?

If evidence of disease is found at a level lower than current legal limit, then the policy needs to be re-evaluated in order to better protect workers in the mining industry.

An Engineering Marvel

The first few weeks at the mines were, to put it simply, overwhelming. The mining pit stretches hundreds of acres. The haul truck is the size of a 2-story house. The mining process and all the equipment – including rock crushers, rod mills, the dust collection system, mobile equipment and more – are an engineering marvel.

When we arrive at the mining plant to collect our samples, an escort helps us maneuver through the plant. Our escort teaches us about the extraction process, the various types of equipment used, sources of dust and health and safety measures. One time, we even had the opportunity to see a blast (from a safe distance, of course) at the pit, where we observed the blasting engineers coordinate with other mining staff via radio to ensure no one was near designated perimeter.

It has been such a privilege to be part of this project. I can’t imagine where I’ll end up next.

For more information about the study, visit http://taconiteworkers.umn.edu.

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