The Minerals Council, the main industry body for the South African mining sector, said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned about the worrying regression in the safety performance of the mining sector since 2020”.
The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, unions and professional associations plan to hold an emergency MineSafe summit in November to address this issue.
“We are seriously concerned about this regression in safety. We need to reflect, regroup, get back on track and minimise exposure of our people to hazardous situations,” said Themba Mkhwanazi, chair of the CEO Zero Harm Leadership Forum in the Minerals Council statement.
“With the regression we are experiencing, we need to put a lot more focus on technology and modernisation to improve skills and mining methods to keep employees safe.”
In 2019, there was a record low of 51 fatalities in South Africa’s mining sector, so the 2021 total has already surpassed that – and this is the second straight year in which fatalities have risen.
“The disruptions to the work environment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are a factor in the regression. Absenteeism and changes to frontline underground mining teams unsettling work patterns and flows since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 have been one of the causes of the setbacks in the mining industry’s safety performance,” the Minerals Council said.
The gold sector had the highest number of fatalities with 23, followed by the platinum sector with 14.
From well above 200 deaths in 2007, the industry saw a steady decline in fatalities from work-related accidents, to 73 in 2016. The number jumped to 90 in 2017, but resumed its downward trajectory to 51 in 2019 – which was on average almost one fatality a week, underscoring just how dangerous the industry remains.
Many factors have been behind the overall improvement, including mechanisation, the roll-out of netting to prevent rockfalls and a concerted drive to foster a culture of safety. The technology and modernisation that Mkhwanazi referred to have been key on this front. This can often mean fewer (but better-paying) jobs and higher productivity, but it can also extend the life of mines so such trends are not blanket job killers.
The mining sector has been one of the few bright spots in the South African economy, thanks to swelling commodity prices, which gave rise to record current account and trade surpluses and provided the ailing Treasury with an unexpected extra shot of revenue. The sector currently has the balance sheet to devote additional resources to safety.
The spike in deaths on the country’s mines will not be ignored in boardrooms since ESGs – environmental, social and governance concerns – set much of the corporate agenda.
Accountancy PwC said on Tuesday that a global survey of 325 investors from around the world – comprising asset managers, analysts with investment firms, investment banks and brokerages – found that 49% expressed “willingness to divest from companies that aren’t taking sufficient action on ESG issues”.
It also found that 79% said “the way a company manages ESG risks and opportunities is an important factor in their investment decision-making”.
In mining, health and safety are crucial ESG issues, making this a space to watch closely. DM/BM