SMI's dust monitoring research bolstered by industry scholarship

5 Mar 2020

Mineral Industry Safety and Health Centre OHS research manager Nikky LaBranche’s efforts to fill the gaps in Australia’s understanding of particulate matter has been bolstered by a highly sought-after AusIMM Education Endowment Fund (EEF) Postgraduate Scholarship.

The Scholarship was awarded to Nikky so that she may more effectively research her PhD, titled Characterising the Impact of Dust on the Respiratory Health of Coal Mine Workers, which she is completing under the supervision of Professor David Cliff.

The AusIMM’s EEF Postgraduate Scholarship recognises and supports excellence in research and is aimed at people with a passion for the resources sector, strong leadership qualities, and a proactive approach to personal and professional development.

Nikky, who is on secondment from Simtars, said the scholarship will ensure her research captures the state of dust monitoring at mine sites across Australia.

“There are major gaps in our understanding of particulate matter and its impacts on health, and an important part of addressing these is accepting it is inadequate to talk about particulates in general terms,” Nikky said.

“Current methods of measurement, simply proving the total dust and silica exposure levels, do not provide the full picture; the other chemical components and their particle size distribution must be quantified to understand the true health hazard.

“To that end, I am taking samples from underground coal mines in variety of locations across Australia and providing the industry with data on how the dust’s chemical composition and size distribution differs within and between mines. This will provide a dust profile for the respirable fraction in the mines sampled. 

“The funds this scholarship provides will help pay for travel to mine sites to collect samples and for sampling equipment and consumables used to conduct the reserach.”  

“This could lead to more effective respirable dust monitoring in the industry, with more precise information helping target dust control strategies, such as adapting the sprays to the particle size distributions or using surfactants more specific to the chemical components.

Professor David Cliff, Leader of Gaps in the Understanding and Management of Particulates Program at MISHC, said Nikky’s industry and research experience makes her a great choice for the scholarship.

“Nikky is an excellent choice for the scholarship as she brings a wealth of experience as a mining engineer and researcher to her research project,” Professor Cliff said.

“Her initial studies and work were in the USA, where she gained a number of awards for research excellence.  She also obtained valuable experience working as an engineer for US coal mining companies as well as two years working for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in their Human Factors Research Group. 

“There is a lot of industry and government concern over the potential adverse health effects of mine dust as the re-emergence of Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis in Queensland and NSW has led to the recognition that we actually know very little about how various sizes and chemical components in mine dusts can cause adverse health effects. 

“MISHC is currently participating in a number of research projects seeking to better understand the potential health impacts of respirable mine dusts, including Strategic Initiative with funding from Peabody Energy and Glencore Copper.

For more information on the MISHC’s research into particulates, visit