Background: Crystalline silica and asbestos are common minerals that occur throughout South Africa, exposure to either causes respiratory disease. Most studies on silicosis in South Africa have been cross-sectional and long-term trends have not been reported. Although much research has been conducted on the health effects of silica dust and asbestos fibre in the gold-mining and asbestos-mining sectors, little is known about their health effects in other mining sectors.
Objective: The aims of this thesis were to describe silicosis trends in gold miners over three decades, and to explore the potential for diamond mine workers to develop asbestos-related diseases and platinum mine workers to develop silicosis.
Methods: Mine workers for the three sub-studies were identified from a mine worker autopsy database at the National Institute for Occupational Health.
Results: From 1975 to 2007, the proportions of white and black gold mine workers with silicosis increased from 18 to 22% and from 3 to 32% respectively. Cases of diamond and platinum mine workers with asbestos-related diseases and silicosis, respectively, were also identified.
Conclusion: The trends in silicosis in gold miners at autopsy clearly demonstrate the failure of the gold mines to adequately control dust and prevent occupational respiratory disease. The two case series of diamond and platinum mine workers contribute to the evidence for the risk of asbestos-related diseases in diamond mine workers and silicosis in platinum mine workers, respectively. The absence of reliable environmental dust measurements and incomplete work history records impedes occupational health research in South Africa because it is difficult to identify and/or validate sources of dust exposure that may be associated with occupational respiratory disease.
Keywords: asbestos; autopsy; diamond; gold; migrant labour; miners; platinum; silica; silicosis.