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Anglo American and Gold Fields’ improved safety records represent a seismic shift for SA mining globally

Anglo American and Gold Fields’ improved safety records represent a seismic shift for SA mining globally
Workers at the South Deep gold mine on 12 October 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

Anglo American and Gold Fields were among the slew of mining companies that released results last week. Notably, neither company had a fatality at their South African operations, but employees were killed on the job in Canada and Australia. This underscores a seismic shift in South Africa mining’s safety performance on the global stage.

Anglo American and Gold Fields were among the slew of mining companies that released results last week. Notably, neither company had a fatality at their South African operations, but employees were killed on the job in Canada and Australia. This underscores a seismic shift in South Africa mining’s safety performance on the global stage. 

Forty-seven miners were killed while working in Gold Fields’ mines in 2008, 43 of those in South Africa. In 2006, 44 of Anglo American’s workers were killed on the job, a number that fell to 19 in 2009, with the majority in South Africa. In 2007, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) alone had 25 miners die in work-related accidents.

These years are a reflection of the fairly recent past and the carnage that was taking place in South Africa’s deep and dangerous mines. In 2008 alone, 170 miners were killed at work in South Africa, but a trend toward safer mining was already well under way by then. A decade before that, the death toll was more than 300. 

Last year, South Africa had a record year for safety, with a death toll of 49 – still a shocking number, but a vast improvement over just a few years ago. 

Anglo American and Gold Fields are emblematic of these wider trends. In 2022, two workers were killed at Anglo American operations, one at Gold Fields. 

And here’s the kicker: none of those fatalities happened in South Africa. Anglo’s fatalities occurred in Canada and Australia, and Gold Fields had its first ever work-related fatality in Australia after 21 years down under. 


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Move to mechanisation

Like the wider mining sector, both companies embarked on concerted safety drives that, among other things, saw a pivot to mechanisation – in Anglo’s case, notably in regards to its platinum operations. This was also against the backdrop of the surge in labour unrest.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Safety First: Gold Fields a natural destination for new CEO Chris Griffith” 

Both Amplats and Gold Fields hived off their labour-intensive, conventional operations in South Africa to Sibanye-Stillwater, which has also improved its safety record significantly after a couple of setbacks a few years back. 

A range of factors aside from mechanisation are behind this state of affairs, including the industry-wide rollout of overhead safety netting from around a decade ago to improved blasting techniques and a concerted drive to improve behaviours, as well as many other measures and initiatives.

Much of this is investor driven as the loss of life in pursuit of profit has become increasingly unacceptable and environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns have taken the corporate world by storm. 

The fact that Anglo American and Gold Fields had no deaths at their own-managed operations in South Africa last year are milestones and is among the reasons why South Africa posted its record safety year last year. 

A range of metrics – including the fatality frequency rate, a measure of deaths per million hours worked – have also fallen dramatically in South Africa, narrowing the gap with other mining jurisdictions such as Canada and Australia. 

This also underlines the point that the decline in accidental deaths is not just a reflection of a shrinking workforce. 

The goal of “zero harm” remains elusive. But when two companies with such long – and, frankly, blood-drenched – histories of mining record no fatalities in South Africa in a calendar year, you know the times are changing. BM/DM

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