DOI: 10.1093/occmed/kqae008 ISSN: 0962-7480

Hypoxaemia and risk of asphyxia during underground work in artisanal cobalt mines

P Musa Obadia, J Pyana Kitenge, T Carsi Kuhangana, S Verpaele, A Ndala Nyongonyi, T Kayembe Kitenge, P d M Katoto, C Banza Lubaba Nkulu, B Nemery
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health



More than half the cobalt needed for vehicle electrification originates from the southern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with a substantial part being extracted by artisanal miners.


To investigate oxygen saturation during underground work among cobalt artisanal miners.


In a field survey, we measured oxygen saturation (SpO2) and heart rate by pulse oximetry in 86 miners from two underground mines and 24 miners from a surface mine at four different time points: before descent into the mine (T1), at 50 minutes in the mine (T2), upon leaving the shaft (T3), and 10 minutes after having left the mine (T4).


Miners working underground (–36 to –112 meters) were somewhat older (34.8 ± 6.7 years) than those working in the surface mine (32.0 ± 6.5 years), and they worked more hours daily (12.6 ± 1.2 hours) than controls (9.0 ± 0.0 hours). All participants had SpO2 >95% at T1 and T4. At T2, SpO2 dropped below 93% and 80% in 35% and 10% underground miners, respectively; SpO2 was still <93% at T3 in 13%. SpO2 remained stable among surface miners. Later, we showed that underground ambient oxygen levels decreased well below 21% in several pits.


Pulse oximetry revealed relevant hypoxaemia during underground work in a substantial proportion of artisanal miners. Such hypoxaemia without evidence of underlying cardiovascular disease is indicative of low ambient oxygen, due to insufficient mine ventilation. This may cause deaths from asphyxia. The hazards of low ambient oxygen in artisanal mines must be prevented by appropriate technical measures ensuring the supply of sufficient fresh air.

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