By Dr. Rob Barbour
- Will local health issues affect employee productivity?
- How do we know if a company’s investment in local clinics and health programs is helping? How do we ensure these investments have the greatest impact?
- How do we know if a mine or other industry is affecting health in the nearby community? If there are claims that people or animals suffered harm, how can that be either verified or disproved?
To help answer these questions, more and more companies are conducting a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) before building a mine or plant in a community.
A Health Impact Assessment begins with a systematic assessment of the current health status of the community, measuring any existing health risks or trends. Then it reviews the potential positive and negative health effects of the new project, using both quantitative and qualitative evidence. Finally, by analyzing the data, we can develop plans to protect and improve community health. The ultimate goal is to identify risks and eliminate or mitigate any negative impacts.
Companies have long taken a strong interest in employee health and wellness because it’s a productivity factor. Today, however, the view is much broader. Community health is seen as part of the overall social responsibility of mining operations. It is a natural extension because employees usually live in the local community and will be directly affected by local health issues.
Barrick Gold adopts HIA approach
Barrick Gold is taking a leadership role in adopting and promoting the use of Health Impact Assessments. This approach is now incorporated into systems for the development of a new mine. Currently, all mines in Tanzania are undergoing a comprehensive health assessment.
Barrick Gold employs independent consultants with specialized expertise to manage the process, and uses cross-functional teams within the company (Human Resources, Community Relations and Health staff) to conduct the work. We may also involve multiple external partners for research, including health authorities, research institutions and community groups.
The process may involve these steps:
- Gather local health data (e.g. disease prevalence)
- Conduct internet searches and research papers
- Interview key stakeholders in local communities
- Inspect existing health facilities and hospitals
- Conduct biological sampling (e.g. existing heavy metals in soils)
- Conduct vector studies (e.g. mosquito counts for malaria control)
- Gather other indicators such as population nutritional status
This information provides a picture of the current health status in the community. It becomes the baseline data for measuring progress. If Barrick builds a health clinic or introduces health programs, we can measure the benefit of these initiatives. If there are health issues in the community or a lack of quality health care, we identify these aspects as potential risks to the future mine operation and its employees. If the current population of 100 will likely grow to more than 1,000 when the mine opens, an assessment will be made whether existing health services will be adequate or more is needed. This analysis helps us plan and allocate resources so that we develop appropriate health service delivery plans with local stakeholders.
Risk and accountability
The HIA process is also a proactive approach to risk management. With scientific baseline information about existing health issues, disease patterns, soil contamination, water quality levels, and other conditions, the company can demonstrate how its community investments improve health or the environment. The data can also serve in refuting false damage claims by groups or individuals, contributing to greater accountability. Above all, these assessments will allow the company’s health experts to accurately measure the impact of health programs and investments over the life of a mining operation.
Women’s health in Pakistan
In 2009, Barrick Gold conducted a HIA at the Reko Diq project in Pakistan to obtain baseline data on community health issues and needs. The assessment identified the immediate need to address poor access to health services for women, due to a lack of female staff and cultural constraints. This led to the creation of a training program for female health workers with expertise in reproductive health.
Benefits of Health Impact Assessments
- Maximize potential positive health impacts a mine can bring to the community.
- Minimize potential unintended negative community health impacts through changes to the project.
- Identify existing community health problems.
- Provide a process to engage with the community, health and social services to help alleviate these problems.
- Negotiate the responsibility of the mine versus local government and health services.
- Provide an evidence-informed basis for planning and funding community health projects that serve greatest needs.
To promote the practice throughout the mining industry, Barrick Gold helped to draft a Good Practice guide for the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).
The document can be downloaded at www.icmm.com/hia