Business Maverick

DEEP AND DANGEROUS

Mining sector seeks next breakthrough in reducing falls of ground fatalities 

Mining sector seeks next breakthrough in reducing falls of ground fatalities 
The local mining industry has come a long way from the 131 falls of ground fatalities in 2003; it is seeking to lower fatalities to zero. (Photo: Nadine Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images News)

South Africa’s mining sector is digging for further breakthroughs in reducing falls of ground deaths after a regression last year from a record low in 2022. 

Falls of ground – which literally means a falling rock smashing your head or crushing your body – have long been the leading cause of deaths in South Africa’s deep and dangerous mines. 

But like other vexed safety issues, the industry has made huge progress in reducing such incidents, known as FOGs. It is now digging for the next breakthrough to eliminate them completely. 

In a presentation on Friday, 5 April, at an FOG Learning Day conference, Mzila Mthenjane, CEO of the Minerals Council SA, charted the breakthroughs that have occurred over the past two decades. 

Falls of ground fatalities

Highs and lows

In 2003, there were 131 FOG fatalities in South Africa’s underground mining operations, and that number fell steeply to 96 in 2004. Over the next six years it would fall 50% to 49, and five years later it halved again to 23. In 2022, a record low of six was reached – the only single-digit year – but in 2023 it spiked again to 16.

Many workers who survive such incidents are badly mangled and maimed.  

The real breakthrough came in 2010, with the rollout of overhead safety nets installed with bolts. In the last few years, new measures have included additional lighting and permanent steel netting over the stope face. 

This is where rock-drill operators bore the holes – literally, the rock face – where explosives are then inserted for blasting. It is also the place where 60% of FOG fatalities occur. 

Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold division, for example, has been installing permanent blast-on meshing in its shafts – netting that does not need to be removed and reinstalled before and after blasting. 

“Permanent” is the key: it means the miners below are never directly exposed to rocks from above.

“The primary focus on permanent mesh installation is to eliminate all rocks from falling uncontrolled,” Vuyisile Sithole, an engineer at Sibanye, said in a presentation to the conference. 

Harmony Gold’s Mponeng mine – the world’s deepest, which extracts gold at depths of close to 4km – began installing permanent meshing in 2021. This has seen a decline in its monthly FOG injury rate, Harmony’s general manager Ronald Malaudzi told the conference. 

Falls of ground fatalities

A mineworker uses a drill on the rock face as he works deep underground. (Photo: Nadine Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images News)

Zero fatalities

“What is the next breakthrough? It has to be zero fatalities from falls of ground,” the Minerals Council’s Mthenjane said. 

That goal remains elusive, but the mining sector is spending R46-million on research into the issue.

The next steps towards the breakthrough include using AI and hand-held underground radars to detect FOGs in advance. 

Rocks are still falling and killing South African miners underground, with two FOG fatalities so far in 2024. As of Friday, 5 April, 10 South African miners in total had been killed in 2024 in work-related accidents. 

The year is only three months and a bit old, but that puts South Africa’s mining sector on track to have fewer fatalities than the 49 recorded in 2010. 

Zero harm may be a long way off, but the number of miners getting harmed is falling. DM

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