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Golden move: Mining companies act to pre-empt silicosis claims

Golden move: Mining companies act to pre-empt silicosis claims

Five mining companies announced on Tuesday a plan to start working on issues of occupational lung disease. The initiative has been met with some scepticism, arriving as thousands of miners seek compensation over silicosis. By GREG NICOLSON.

In the Eastern Cape’s Mafusini, 61-year-old Mashunyana Mshiywa spoke to Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis for her multiple award-winning project Coughing Up For Gold about the health problems experienced by mineworkers. He started working in 1970 and after eight years loading gold ore into carts underground in the Orange Free State, Mshiywa started coughing, getting frequent colds and chest pains. The mine doctor said my chest has dust, and the best thing they could do was to provide me with a dust mask […] But already it was too late because the dust was already inside my lungs.”

He said he only got a mask in 2005. Working for 37 years in the mines, Mshiywa contracted silicosis due to exposure to dust. With silicosis, the body is at high-risk of developing tuberculosis and Mshiywa started on TB medication in 2010.

It’s difficult to find conclusive figures, but studies indicate a large number of mineworkers, current and former, have contracted silicosis and TB at work. Silicosis, caused by the inhalation of the silica dust often associated with gold mining, has blighted the industry since its inception. On Tuesday, as some mineworkers continue to pursue class action suits, five mining companies announced they will jointly deal with such issues of occupational lung disease (OLD) in collaboration with other stakeholders.

Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye announce that they have formed an industry working group to address issues relating to compensation and medical care for occupational lung disease (OLD) in the gold mining industry in South Africa,” the miners said in a press release. They will arrange initial meetings with the departments of health, labour, mineral resources, unions, other mining companies and lawyers for claimants before extensive consultation in 2015 “intended to lead to a comprehensive solution”.

The companies believe that fairness and sustainability are necessary to any comprehensive solution. The solution needs to be a product of the engagement process that has been initiated,” they continued. Alan Fine, from Russell and Associates which is handling PR for the companies, emphasised a solution must be both fair to miners and support the sustainability of the sector.

Last year, Anglo American settled a claim by 23 miners who said they contracted silicosis in its mines, the first settlement of its kind in South Africa. Seven of the claimants died during the litigation that started in 2004, but lawyers for the mineworkers said the settlement was a boost in the push to achieve an industry-wide compensation scheme.

Legislation has long existed for miners with occupational lung disease to be compensated, but the system doesn’t work. A 1998 study found only 2.5% of valid claims were paid in full in the Transkei; a 2003 study found that of almost 28,161 certified claims, less than 1.5% were paid.

Currently, there is a class action representing around 30,000 mineworkers or their dependants against 30 mining companies who operated in South Africa from 1965. Essentially, they accuse the mining companies of systemic failure to prevent exposure to silicosis. UK firm Leigh Day is also pushing for claims for over 5,000 people from Anglo American South Africa and AngloGold, totalling over R5 billion.

Speaking for the five companies, Fine said in launching the new working group they weren’t motivated by just the court action but seek a comprehensive solution to a range of issues, such as preventing occupational lung diseases and meeting health and safety targets.

Richard Meeran, a partner at Leigh Day who worked on the case against Anglo American, said, “This statement has undoubtedly been elicited by the pressure of silicosis litigation that has been brought to bear on the industry from all sides. We have been calling on the industry for more than a decade to alleviate the suffering of the victims by assisting with their medical needs and by establishing a compensation scheme. During this time, apart from the settlement by Anglo American of the 23 President Steyn miners’ claims, the industry has done virtually nothing to our knowledge but stall and bury its head.

Today’s statement acknowledges the blindingly obvious; that the industry has a duty to compensate and assist silicosis victims on whose backs it has reaped billions for its shareholders. But this statement allows plenty of scope for further obfuscation and procrastination. So we are not holding our breath. We intend to press full steam ahead with the litigation unless and until the industry actually does the decent thing.”

Speaking for the Legal Resources Centre, also involved in past and present litigation, Sayi Nindi said it’s hard to judge the mining companies’ plans but anything that will help the miners get compensation should be welcomed.

If the companies decide to offer compensation to current and former workers with silicosis, there could be huge payouts, with some estimates claiming there are up to one in four gold miners suffering from the disease and hundreds of thousands having contracted it.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was sceptical of the companies’ announcement on Tuesday. “They are not doing this thing voluntarily,” said the union’s health and safety secretary Erick Gcilitshana, adding that the public shouldn’t see the companies as altruistic when they were pressured by the legal action. NUM wasn’t consulted about the plan to form a working group, Gcilitshana said, but the union wants the companies to form a trust to distribute compensation so miners with lung diseases can be cared for.

The different forms of silicosis can cause symptoms from chest pain, fatigue, respiratory failure, loss of vital capacity, tuberculosis and lung cancer. However, it only emerges after years of working in the mines. Like many problems with South Africa’s prominent mining industry, there are still acute challenges, years after reforms are supposed to be in place. DM

Photo: Mineworkers work deep underground at Harmony Gold Mine’s Cooke shaft near Johannesburg, September 22, 2005. (Reuters)

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