South Africa

South Africa

Parliament Diary: A reminder that miners still get shafted in health

Parliament Diary: A reminder that miners still get shafted in health

The greatest threat to miners working underground is not the possibility of a shaft collapse, or a sudden rockfall. It comes every single day via the air that they breathe. When Parliament’s mineral resources committee met on Wednesday, an expert was on hand to remind them just how serious the health consequences of mining remain – and how inadequate the compensation system is for miners who fall sick. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Chief Inspector of Mines, David Msiza, laid it out to Parliament’s mining committee. More miners continue to lose their lives every year from respiratory disease than from mine accidents. In 2014 alone, there were 6,577 reported cases of mine-related occupational disease.

“Although there has been improvement, significant effort is still required to prevent harm on mineworkers as a result of health hazards,” Msiza said.

Dr Rodney Ehrlich has been examining miners for 30 years. As the head of Occupational Medicine at UCT, there are probably few people in the country better placed to come to Parliament and tell MPs what those miners’ health hazards are, and what problems exist with attempts to seek compensation for disease contracted on the mines.

In order for mineworkers to seek compensation for occupational disease, they have to be medically examined. This presents the second problem, which is that most former mineworkers live in remote rural areas. The first problem is that most mineworkers don’t understand the compensation process.

They still receive little institutional support in this regard. Ehrlich suggested that if a mineworker arrives at a provincial hospital and asks to be examined, there is a “good chance” the doctor or nurse on duty will not know what they’re talking about. But claims for compensation have to be backed up with medical certification.

Ehrlich says that the current backlog for miners to be medically certified by the Medical Bureau of Occupational Diseases is 8,000 cases, due mainly to the fact that the body is highly understaffed.

That’s nothing compared to the backlog in actual compensation payouts: 104,000 cases, Ehrlich told the committee.

The compensation system for miners’ occupational disease remains mired in problems, Ehrlich reported. The mines have their own special system for disease compensation, called ODMWA (the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act). Workers in other industries who get sick or injured can claim from COIDA (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act). While the latter is also dysfunctional, its financial payouts are better.

When compensation for mineworkers is calculated, the wages they were earning are capped at R3,000 – even though the average wage on the mines is R4,500.

The compensation scale has also radically lagged behind inflation. In fact, miners today are getting stiffed compared to yesterday’s payouts. With a case of first degree silicosis today, you get paid out seven months’ wages (if you’re lucky enough to successfully claim, be processed, etc). In 1973, Ehrlich said, miners in the same situation received two years’ compensation.

Ehrlich told MPs that if workers contract silicosis while working in a foundry, for instance, rather than a mine, their financial prospects are much healthier than for the mineworkers. This seems manifestly unfair, particular given the working conditions for miners. Moving miners over to the COIDA system is also not a solution, Ehrlich said, because it would be hugely expensive.

ODMWA is funded by levies paid by mines, but not all mines – only 246, from the 1600 mining operations that exist in South Africa. The fact that it is solvent, Ehrlich suggested, is because “the system is reliant on mineworkers not claiming what is their due”. If every mineworker who was entitled to compensation actually made a claim, the pot might run dry pretty quickly.

In the face of the inefficacy of the compensation system, we’re seeing more mineworkers launch high-profile legal challenges. This is understandable, Ehrlich suggested: if you win in the courts, you get a larger payout. Class action suits allow for settlements which cover large numbers of miners. The increased publicity may conceivably galvanise mines to take the necessary steps to ensure their operations are not exposing miners to unacceptable levels of silica dust.

Exactly what an “acceptable” level of exposure to dust is, remains contentious. South Africa has settled on a measurement of 0.1 mg/m3. Other countries say that to be safe, dust levels should be restricted to 0,05 mg/m3 or even 0.025.

Silicosis can take 15 to 20 years to appear on an X-ray, so the former mineworkers getting diagnosed now may not have worked underground for years. Current mines complain that it’s unfair that they should have to bear the compensation burden for mines operating in decades gone by. But the issue of lung disease – in particular silicosis – is one that the mining industry has known about since the early 20th century. There’s little doubt that more should have been done – and still should be done – to protect miners from exposure to harmful dust.

It was a point made by the IFP’s Jan Esterhuizen. “Gold mining companies have for decades had the legal responsibility to control lung disease and [have] failed to comply,” Esterhuizen said.

The ANC’s Hezekiel Matlala took a hardline view. “Some of the [mining] CEOs are not doing their job,” Matlala suggested to the committee. “We are going to be left with no options but to request the powers that be to fire [CEOs] and get people who are interested in saving [miners’] lives. Otherwise we’ll be left with this matter for the next century.”

It’s not a total exaggeration. In 2003, the mining industry pledged that by 2013 there would be no new cases of silicosis in miners who started working after 2008. That has been a pipe dream: Ehrlich says that 1,500 – 2,000 active miners are still diagnosed every year. We have no way of knowing how many former miners will fall sick years from now.

Who should pay for this epidemic of disease?

DA MP Hendrik Schmidt took a pro-business stance. “Mines are not going through profitable times,” he pointed out. Shouldn’t payouts for miners be a dual responsibility of taxpayers and mines?

“South African taxpayers have always supported the system because of the importance of mineworkers to white politics,” Ehrlich responded. The Rand Rebellion of 1922 almost prompted civil war in South Africa, he pointed out. As a result, government has always taken steps to help out with compensation.

But ultimately Ehrlich suggested the issue is a political question: To what extent should the South African taxpayer fill the gap? DM

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Photo: Marikana protest, September 5, 2012. (Greg Marinovich)


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