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26 November 2014 16:48 (South Africa)
South Africa

Mining safety: The same old story

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa
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In 2011, for the first time in living memory, South Africa’s mining sector recorded no "disaster" - defined as a single incident in which four or more workers die. This year, however, disaster has struck with renewed venom. After the deaths of at least 16 illegal miners in separate incidents in May, five miners working at a Gold Fields mine in Carletonville lost their lives in a fire on Saturday. By KHADIJA PATEL.

According to the Department of Mineral Resources, since the first recorded mining accident in 1904, more than 54,000 mine workers have lost their lives in mining accidents in South Africa. “Many more workers have died as a result of exposure to hazardous dust, gas and fumes,” the department says. Despite the many, many advances in mining since the bleakest times in mining safety in the 20th century, and mining companies’ best efforts to stem the rate of fatalities in South African mines, the incident at the Driefontein mine on Saturday reeked of the same old story – miners working overtime, only to die of asphyxiation. 

Spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Lesiba Seshoka, said the five died from smoke inhalation while working overtime doing mudloading, adding that early indications suggested there was no compressed air in the section where the miners were working. NUM's general secretary, Frans Baleni, spent the day on Monday at the Driefontein mine, and said grimly: "We strongly condemn the company for sending workers on overtime night shift when there is no ventilation."

For their part, Gold Fields has closed the entire mine since the incident and affirmed their commitment to an investigation. In a statement released on the group’s website, Chief Executive Officer Nick Holland said: “We will thoroughly investigate the causes of this accident.”

Executive Vice President and Head of Gold Fields' South Africa Region, Peter Turner, added: "On this particular shaft – Ya Rona – we've had 655 fatality-free working days (two years and nine months) before this tragedy. This incident is highly regrettable in view of the significant safety improvements we've experienced on this mine. This shaft, together with the remaining 12 shafts on the KDC operation, has been closed, and we will be cooperating fully with all stakeholders to investigate the cause of the accident.”

In 2009, Gold Fields commissioned the services of Canadian consulting company DuPont to undertake a comprehensive review of its safety practices, in an effort to understand the current safety management systems and culture, identifying improvement opportunities, and providing a path to achieve safety improvement objectives. In South Africa, the outcomes of the DuPont assessments resulted in a project called “Safe Production Management” that is said to have increased leadership visibility through regular workplace inspections and general workplace visits. This attention to safety is in line with Gold Fields’ commitment to the “Zero Harm” policy championed throughout the South African mining industry.

In 2003, representatives of the South African Mining industry – employers, labour unions and government – set historic and significant milestones for health and safety to be reached by 2013 - “zero harm” for all employees. The CEOs of more than 30 companies determined that 2013 would be the year in which South Africa’s mine safety would be on a par with the mine safety in industrialised countries like Canada, the US, Australia and the UK. In an industry better attuned to profits and production, this emphasis on safety is welcome. It is long overdue, but with 2013 looming large and fatalities still a reality of the mining experience in South Africa, “Zero Harm” appears to be up for creative interpretation.

For Gold Fields, for example, “Zero Harm” has meant that  instead of accepting the risks involved in gold mining as “inherent”, their employees and managers are schooled into believing that with the right approach and mentality, mining can be rendered safe. However, even as Gold Fields insists their goal of Zero Harm was more than an empty aspiration but rather an achievable goal, statisticians warn that “Zero Harm” in the workplace is impossible. Gold Fields has not been alone in emphasising “Zero Harm”.  NUM continues to endorse the policy even as concerned analysts, psychologists and statisticians argue that that there is no such thing as “Zero Harm” – the elimination of workplace accidents will never be achieved.

Speaking to Creamer Media’s Mining Weekly in September 2010, Dr Philip Frankel, author of Falling Ground, a book on mining safety, was sceptical of the 2013 goal being met. “This is a wonderful goal, but I don’t think this will happen by 2013,” he said. One explanation of South African mining’s relatively high level of fatalities is the great depth of South African mines – making these mines more susceptible to irregular seismic activity. South African mines are, after all, said to be the most dangerous in the world. 

Frankel, however, believes only gold mines can use the depth excuse.  “Yes, we mine deep in the gold industry, yet we have fatalities in platinum and even in the coal-mining industry, where the mining is not deep,” he said in the same interview. He believes issues of safety in mining in South Africa are tied to more insidious social challenges. “There is something wrong with the culture, that is, the mindsets, behaviour, attitudes, perceptions and the social relationships in the mines,” he explained. 

Frankel’s scepticism of the “Zero Harm” approach is also echoed by Edmond Furter, editor of Sheqafrica.com, an online occupational safety, health, environment and quality magazine. Furter believes the fundamental problem with the “Zero Harm” approach stems from the term itself. “It is misleading,” he says. “Nobody knows what exactly it means but people are still comfortable with these vague, mushy, feel-good targets,” he says, pointing out that “Zero Harm” was coined by the Canadian consultants. And though it’s won international plaudits, it has failed to be scrutinised in its relevance to South Africa. Frankel and Furter both argue that applying safety models from countries like Canada and Australia without taking into consideration local context is to set up the strategy for failure. 

Writing in his blog in December last year, Furter was scathing of the various mining giants burrowing for riches underground in South Africa and their allegiance to “Zero Harm”: 

“Target ‘zero’ does not ring true in an industry where multinational blue cup corporate leaders are adjusting their risk tolerance to approach global best practice, in line with modern equipment, while still externalising some costs and sheq impacts by relying on migrant labour, minimum training, rates and taxes privileges, a production ethic, and profit export.

“Triple bottom line impacts and externalised costs are even larger at some local, non-leading miners. Mining, with its global mechanisms, national chambers, funds and massive financial machinery, had failed at preventing ‘blood’ diamonds from being scraped together by warlords and finding their way into various markets.

“Mining has failed at preventing big name crooks from entering its ranks, stripping assets, escalating acid mine drainage, and killing some small scale illegal miners who wanted crumbs from the fat men’s tables.”

However misplaced the notion of “Zero Harm” may indeed be, it is a tangible commitment from the mining industry in South Africa to deal with the spate of injuries and fatalities that have undermined the efficiency of the industry in the last ten years. In May this year, Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mineral Resources, hailed the safety crackdown on the South African mining industry – a crackdown that has included a surge in inspections, and stoppages for safety violations – pointing out that the the number of fatalities was reduced to three in April, down from an average of 11 or more a month.

The crackdown has, however been felt in output. Data for February indicates that production of platinum group metals (PGMs) fell 47.6% while gold output fell 11.5% in volume terms in February. Total mineral production was down 14.5% compared with the same month last year. And not all mining companies are happy to prioritise safety over production. In January this year, Aquarius Platinum, the world's fourth-largest primary producer, joined a chorus of warnings from the platinum industry that the drive to cut accidents was leading to lengthier and more damaging halts to production.

"This issue is making the South African mining industry a difficult place in which to operate, and whilst zero harm is laudable, there must be practical implementation of the law," Aquarius Chief Executive Stuart Murray told Reuters.

"Not only has the incidence of these stoppages risen markedly, in many cases the time now taken by the regional department to resolve these stoppages has risen from some two days to a week or sometimes more."

There is an awkward dance, then, between safety and production in mining in South Africa – a dance that last weekend took the lives of five miners. It is clear that afety is a complicated issue, requiring interventions at a number of levels, but there are still too many unanswered questions about how exactly to address it. DM

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Photo: Former gold miners listen to speakers at a registration meeting in Bizana in South Africa's impoverished Eastern Cape province March 7, 2012. Hundreds of migrant workers from across southern Africa with suspected lung disease are coming forward to launch a class action lawsuit against South Africa's giant gold mining houses. Picture taken March 7, 2012. (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa


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