The death of four mineworkers at Impala Platinum (Implats) last week was a reminder of the industry's violent history. During democracy, fatalities on the mines have significantly decreased. But drastic measures must be taken to turn the cliché into reality: the loss of one life is one too many. By GREG NICOLSON.
“Mine managements have made a substantial effort to reduce the accident and fatality rate by adopting measures within the traditional framework of the mining organisation,” Dr HJ Simons, an associate professor of “native law and administration”, wrote in 1961. He meant companies were trying to improve safety while maintaining the unequal relationship between white and black workers. A year earlier, 21 January 1960, 435 people were killed when the Coalbrook North Collieries collapsed.
On 22 January this year, four people died at Impala Platinum’s 14 shaft when they were overcome by noxious gasses. Simons continued on Coalbrook, “Amidst the doubt and confusion we can only conclude that the defects which were commented on 50 years ago have not yet been eliminated from South Africa’s mining system.”
On Thursday, Mineral Resources Minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, will release the industry’s health and safety statistics for 2015. As he delivers the figures to company leaders, union representatives and the media, the deaths at Impala will be a reminder of the tens of thousands of workers who have died in the mines since the industry started digging itself into the country’s history of exploitation and building empires for a minority. If the death of workers are a reminder, however, the signal is ever present. When then Minister of Mineral Resources, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, announced the safety statistics last year, he expressed regret that seven mineworkers had already lost their lives in the first month of 2015.
And yet while tragedy maintains a constant presence there have been improvements in mine safety.
Implats has not been able to access 14 shaft to get a clear picture of what happened on Friday and the department of mineral resources still has to investigate. But the company’s spokesperson Johan Theron said they can infer what have might led to the four fatalities. The shaft includes two operations, each with its own staff, infrastructure and management. The top section of the shaft includes various levels of vertical infrastructure and conventional, deep-level mining. The bottom section provides access to the deeper ore from the bottom of the top section.
At this stage, said Theron, it looks like a fire started in the bottom section around 17:00 on Friday (the exact time, where and how it might have started is still unclear). When workers began the night shift, around 20:00-21:00, no one was underground, but the top section was cleared for entry while the on-surface monitoring systems suggested there could be a problem in the bottom section.
“Following on from this, it was soon confirmed that there was indeed a problem in the bottom section and more importantly that gasses/smoke may somehow be permeating into the top section of the shaft. The decision was then immediately made to evacuate everyone from the shaft and to initiate all emergency mine rescue response protocols. Upon evacuation and after assisting employees held-up rescue bays, it was found that four people remain unaccounted for and tragically it turned out to be the employees that were overcome by smoke from the bottom section,” says Theron.
“Bottom line, we shouldn’t have underground fires with all our safety systems, instantaneous and continuous gas monitoring, flame-retardant conveyor belts, fire-detection systems and dowsing systems when a heat source is detected. We also have installed CCTV cameras on critical access points and vulnerable points like decline systems to monitor what is going on. But, despite all these interventions, and having refuge chambers and safety packs available when other interventions fail, we still experienced this tragic incident. We clearly still have to learn from this experience as a company and industry to ensure we attain our Zero Harm goals.”
Implats said it is “providing all the support and assistance required” to the families of those who died and is committed to improving safety. Theron, like Implats CEO, Terence Goodlace, was sympathetic. “These are deeply tragic and frustrating times for the families concerned. Hopefully the findings of the [department of mineral resources] and company investigations can shed light on whether this was a freak accident or whether something more systemic needs to be addressed,” said Theron.
When mineworkers die on the job, the responses follow a pattern. “We have always maintained that the loss of one life is one too many and the goal for every mining operation should be that every worker returns home unharmed every single day,” said Minister Zwane, summing up the general sentiment. Erick Gcilitshana, National Union of Mineworkers heath and safety secretary, called the deaths unacceptable and for negligent parties to be prosecuted. “We are selling our labour for the survival of our families, not our limbs and lives,” he said. After the sympathy and sometimes accusations, stakeholders usually recommit to their “Zero Harm” goals.
It sounds ludicrous, given how many mineworkers have died, and are still dying, but there have been improvements. In 2014, the industry recorded its lowest ever fatalities, with 84 miners killed at work, the majority at gold mines followed by platinum mines. Ramatlhodi said it was “encouraging”. This followed another record-low in 2013 which saw 93 fatalities. To put it in perspective, in 1994 there were 615 deaths in the mines, and an average of 800 fatalities each year in the 20 preceding years. According to Ramatlhodi, the current rates are “comparing favourably” with sectors in Canada and the United States.
Back in 1961, Dr Simons wrote, “An accident is not a fortuitous, unavoidable event. It is, broadly, the result of defective adaptation to or control of environment, and could have been averted by the adoption of adequate care or technical and material safeguards. The high and increasing incidence of mining accidents points to deficiencies in management.”
Perhaps he’s wrong – mining, particularly mining in South Africa, is dangerous. But through industry commitments, government regulation and pressure from unions, fatalities have reduced and accidents have significantly decreased. Simons found no reason to believe the Coalbrook deaths would make life safer for the black worker. The chances that mineworkers won’t die on the job, however, have significantly improved during democracy. Drastic measures, however, must be taken to turn the cliché into reality: the loss of one life is one too many. DM