Worker safety is the cornerstone of responsible industry operations, and International Copper Association (ICA) member companies strive to ensure operational environments not only meet but exceed the regulatory guidelines for worker safety. By studying the effectiveness of current occupational exposure limits (OEL) (e.g., the number of copper particles that can be in the air without affecting workers), ICA members make sure their employees are safe in their work settings. This interaction with copper particles may occur during the mining, smelting and refining processes of production.
Assessing Occupational Exposure
Over the past decade, ICA has commissioned peer-reviewed scientific studies to better understand the effects of long-term exposure to copper particles and its potential impacts on worker health. This interaction with copper particles may occur during the mining, smelting and refining processes of production. To ensure the reliability of the results across all studies, the researchers employed top-of-the-line research tools and a comprehensive study design with oversight from third-party consultants. This research shows existing copper industry OELs successfully safeguard worker health.
Long- and Short-Term Human Health Exposure Studies Show No Adverse Effects
Two studies examined long- and short-term impacts of worker exposure to copper particles in the air, including a surveillance study of respiratory health that collected over more than two decades of data at a copper smelter facility and an additional study involving respiratory health testing on current workers. The long-term surveillance study examined the lung inflammation and health of 104 German copper smelter workers compared to 70 of their colleagues working in the same facility with different metals over a 22-year period (1972 – 2018). The short-term follow-up study (2019) examined the health of the same group of smelter workers, focusing on biomarkers indicative of lung health.
The results of both human health studies, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, revealed no significant health impacts on workers exposed to copper at the smelter occurred.
Lab Research on Copper Compounds Shows No Adverse Effects Due to Copper Exposure
In addition to the human health studies focusing on workers in an operational environment, lab-based research on the effects of exposure to common copper compounds was conducted. The study looked at the effects of repeated doses of two
copper compounds on rats over a two-week period. A longer study was also performed on one of the copper compounds over a 28-day period. The peer-reviewed study, published in Toxicology, determined that no adverse effect or toxicity was observed in the 14- or 28-day studies for either copper compound.
Existing Occupational Exposure Limits
Overall, the human health research on exposure to copper in the workplace and the copper compound study show existing OELs do protect workers from any health impacts arising from working in the copper industry. These types of high-quality scientific studies are needed to advance knowledge and practice around worker health and the copper industry to ensure safe working environments throughout the value chain. With forecasts showing inevitable growth in copper mining, it will be important for producers to remember the safety of their most important asset, their employees.