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Accidental deaths in SA mines fall to record low of 49 in 2022

Accidental deaths in SA mines fall to record low of 49 in 2022
Employees wash their hands beneath a safety sign at Sishen mine, operated by Kumba Iron Ore Ltd., an iron ore-producing unit of Anglo American Plc, in Shishen, South Africa, on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. (Photo: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In 2022, 49 South African mineworkers were killed on the job, a record low and a 34% fall compared to the 74 fatalities recorded the previous year. The goal of "Zero Harm" remains elusive, but progress is being made. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the industry, the workers and unions all deserve credit on this front. 

The bad news is that last year on average, almost one mineworker a week was killed on the job in South Africa. The good news is that was actually a safety record in over a century of industrial-scale mining in South Africa.

Fatalities from mining accidents fell in 2022 to a record low of 49, a 34% fall compared to 74 the previous year. This reverses a regression in safety that had alarmed regulators, boardrooms and unions alike that set in after the previous record low of 51 in 2019.

The goal of “Zero Harm” remains elusive and the bottom line is that miners are still being killed in unacceptably high numbers. It may sound cliche but one death really is too many. But progress is being made and the trend is at least moving in the right direction.    

Two things stand out. One is a reduction in incidents resulting in multiple deaths. 

“… there has been no mine disaster or an accident where five or more people lose their lives recorded in the past three years. This is a result of concerted efforts by all social partners who actively participated in the health and safety campaigns throughout the years,” Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe said in prepared remarks. 

Another is a dramatic decline in deaths from fall-of-ground (FOG) incidents – a terrible fate as the rock above literally falls on you, as the name suggests. Historically this has been the leading cause of death in South Africa’s dangerous mines which are the world’s deepest. According to the DMRE data released on Tuesday, there were six FOG fatalities underground in 2022, a sharp drop from 20 in 2021. 

According to this correspondent’s calculations last year for the US science magazine Undark, from 2000 to 2021, FOGs accounted for 39 percent of mine fatalities. (URL: https://undark.org/2022/11/23/new-technology-aims-to-stop-an-old-danger-in-south-africas-mines/).

Last year they accounted for about 12% and efforts on this front are clearly a key reason why the overall toll has fallen. 

These efforts, stemming in part from a renewed drive by South African mining CEOs and a July 2021 Action Plan, have included mechanised bolting of overhanging safety netting at the stope, making such coverage – which basically catches falling rocks – permanent, introducing improved lighting (as Northam Platinum has done at its Eland mine), identifying and safely removing loose rocks, and intensely monitoring work areas to ensure their safety and to prevent “short-cuts” from being taken to get the job done faster. 

The industry has also flagged a growing shortage of qualified rock engineers, whose expertise is crucial for reducing the risk if loose rocks crushing and maiming rock drill operators and other mines below. 

“Over the last couple of years there has been a massive exodus of experienced rock engineers out of the country. In 2020 alone, a total of 20 rock engineers emigrated to Australia and Canada. Another challenge is that most experienced rock engineers are nearing retirement,” the 2021 Action Plan said.

That trend has almost certainly not been reversed in a significant way the past couple of years, but other measures are paying dividends. And innovations such as hand-held radars that can detect an FOG in advance which Anglo American Platinum has been researching hold further promise. 

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said such technology should be pursued regardless of costs. 

“South Africa is capable of developing technology that can foretell the fall of ground … If we care about human life, the expenses or cost towards procuring such advanced technology should not matter,” NUM said in a statement about the 2022 safety data. 

Injuries on the job in the mining sector did not decline at the same scale as fatalities, with a 4% improvement on the front in 2022 to 2,056 compared to 2021when 2,142 injuries were reported. That’s still an average of almost 40 a week.

Still, by a range of measurements, including fatality and injury frequency rates, South Africa’s mines have become safer workplaces over the pst few decades. It’s a far cry from the apartheid era when hundreds of overwhelmingly African mineworkers were killed each year and “black lives” meant little in the boardroom. 

There has also been a continued reduction in occupational diseases linked to mining. The DMRE noted that there was “a decrease in silicosis, Pulmonary TB (PTB), Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis (CWP) and other diseases.” But in a worrying sign, it said occupational diseases in the gold sector had increased. 

A range of factors are behind the overall improvement over the years in mine, health and safety in South Africa, and all role players including the DMRE, the industry, workers and unions deserve credit. It’s been a concerted effort and one in which business, the regulator and labour have buried other differences to work together. 

Mechanisation has been rolled out where South Africa’s unforgiving geology allows, and digitisation and automation have been adding to those gains. Investors have also pressured boardrooms to clean up their act – they increasingly don’t want dividends stained in blood. This has given rise to the whole ESG – environmental, social and governance issues – that are currently all the corporate rage. 

“Legacy issues” have also focused minds. The R5-billion silicosis settlement reached in 2018 with six current and former South African gold producers to compensate gold miners who contracted the incurable lung disease inhaling silica dust underground is among the warnings for the industry of the consequences of not cleaning up its act. 

Mining remains a dangerous industry in South Africa. It is also crucial to the economy, accounting for close to 9% of GDP and providing a crucial source of foreign exchange and tax revenue. On top of that, it employs close to 460,000 workers. Bringing them all home safely each day is a noble goal. DM/BM  

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