Working in thin air: the risks of jobs at high altitude

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The long-term risks of abrupt altitude changes are unclear but precautions are advisable

Gideon Long in Puno, Peru

Bundled up in heavy clothing, his face and eyes protected from the fierce Andean sun, Otilio Huanca moves slowly across the bone-dry earth of the Arasi gold mine in Peru, breathing deeply and directing bulldozers as they claw great chunks of rock out of the barren mountain side.

At 5,000 metres above sea level — higher than any mountain in western Europe — this is one of the most inhospitable places on earth to work. The light is blinding, the temperatures plummet at night, the mine is sometimes whipped by snowstorms and the air is thin on oxygen. “It’s a challenge,” acknowledges Huanca, pulling aside the face mask that protects him from the dust. “It can be hot one minute and cold the next, and above all it’s difficult to breathe.”