Managing health and safety risks is paramount at all steps in the aluminium production process.”

Dr James Wesdock
Corporate Manager Occupational Health
Alcoa

Some aluminium industry processes have health & safety issues common to many manufacturing sectors while other processes have very specific hazards that need to be addressed.

In managing the risk to people from these industry-related processes, it is necessary to identify systematically all potential hazards, have standards of good practice, committed management and systems for a structured follow up. Measurement of health and safety performance at the facility, company and sector level is key to managing risks.

Lagging indicators, also sometimes called trailing, downstream or ‘after-the-fact’ indicators, provide historical information about health and safety performance. With lagging indicators, nothing can be changed to alter the measure of health and safety performance, as it is history. Any changes made may influence future performance but cannot alter the past performance. Classic injury statistics such as injury frequency rate and lost workday rate are examples of lagging indicators and for safety performance these have been collected by the International Aluminium Institute (IAI) and published since the mid 1990s.

Leading indicators, also sometimes called ‘upstream’ indicators, are used as predictors of health and safety performance. The advantage of using leading indicators of performance is that actions can be taken to alter the course of health and safety performance. If an indicator predicts poor performance, it is not necessary to wait to see if the prediction is correct. Changes can be implemented to increase the probability of improved performance. Thus, leading indicators can provide guidance whereby there is greater assurance of achieving good health and safety performance.

Leading indicators as a measure of health performance have been collected and published by the Institute since the early 2000s.

Safety

Coordinated safety initiatives on particular hazardous activities, where the consequences of not following good practices can be fatal, have been the focus of a number of industry best practice guidelines. Examples of such activities include the operation of mobile equipment, lifting devices, combustion, and high voltage equipment, as well as the handling of bath and molten metal. Control of these hazards is the key to reducing the risk of injury and fatality.

Since 1997 the IAI has collected comprehensive benchmarking data on safety performance in the global aluminium industry and shared the results within the industry. Such information is a driving force for continual improvement. In addition to benchmarking performance, another important activity is to share information on accidents. The aluminium industry, in common with many other manufacturing sectors, has consistently improved injury rates over the past 15 years, with many facilities achieving zero lost time or even recordable injuries per annum:

Besides investments in technical improvements, it is primarily practice-oriented training and qualification measures, aimed at identifying hazards, assessing and controlling risks, that have contributed to this positive development. This is consistent with the experience that most accidents at work are behaviour and organisation related.

Occupational Health

Minimising health risks is essential for the long term sustainability of operations, which rely on safe and productive workforces. With long lag times for many occupational diseases between exposure and onset, the use of lagging indicators is limited in its ability to affect positive change. In this case, leading indicators are an effective route to measuring industry performance and ensuring that workforces are protected.

In recent surveys of its membership, the International Aluminium Institute found that 99% had employee exposure assessment and medical surveillance programmes in place, as defined in IAI-ICMM published guidelines. In addition more than 95% of operating locations had EHS management systems in place; 94% having achieved ISO 14000 certification, 46% with OHSAS 18000 certification.

Traditionally, the focus for the primary aluminium industry has been on minimising worker exposure to physical and chemical hazards (either over the long term or in short term peak exposures). This means managing chemical, heat, noise, dust and magnetic field/radiation exposure through engineering controls, changed work practices or the use of personal protective equipment. However, in recent years other hazards have been identified and are the subject of exploration by the industry – namely psychological health, wellness (with a focus on maximising health rather than minimising harm) and the interplay between occupational health, safety, community health and work-life balance.

Community Health & Safety

A healthy community means healthy families, which means a safer and more motivated workforce; thus there is an important link between the community, which provides the workforce, and operational efficiency and productivity. In turn, the values of occupational health and safety at the heart of aluminium manufacturing operations are taken out by the workforce in to their homes and communities, fostering a culture of safety that, for instance, sees people wearing seatbelts in vehicles where their use is not mandated.

Based on a needs assessment, companies may implement community-based health programmes, examples of which are found below:

  • Vector-borne disease control
  • Drugs & alcohol programmes
  • Sanitation infrastructure & programmes

While many of the traditional health & safety hazards in the aluminium industry are common across the mining and manufacturing sector, community health issues and opportunities are quite specific to the location. Actions to mitigate identified issues or take advantage of the opportunities also need to be handled with sensitivity to the cultural context. Therefore, operators work very closely with communities in defining health needs and appropriate actions, regularly measure performance and revisit objectives in consultation with stakeholders.

As well as developing specific community health programmes, operators may invest in the building of healthcare infrastructure in areas where often there is little or no formal capacity for meeting the healthcare needs of workers, their families and the communities at large, during the life of a mine or refinery and even after closure. Infrastructure support can include hospitals, clinics, health education resources, emergency response personnel and equipment, doctors, nurses and hygienists.

More than 50% of IAI-surveyed operating locations indicate that they have two or more community health initiatives implemented and ongoing.

Public Health

Aluminium is the most abundant metallic element on Earth. Aluminium metal is used as a structural material in the construction, automotive, and aircraft industries, in the production of metal alloys, in the electrical industry, in cooking utensils, and in food packaging. Aluminium compounds are used as coagulants in water treatment, as antacids, antiperspirants and food additives.

A number of different organisations have suggested dietary intake limits for aluminium. In 2011 the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) established a provisional tolerable weekly intake (PTWI) of 2 mg aluminium/kg body weight. The PTWI applies to all aluminium compounds in food, including food additives. It is present in the human diet at moderate levels, generally less than 15 mg being ingested daily by adults.

Further information on aluminium and health can be found in the Fact Sheets linked on the left.