“I need hardly say that I am fully alive to the importance of all matters affecting the health and safety of the miners.” – Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain, 1902

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Black, Chinese and white laborers in a gold mine in South Africa, circa 1890 - 1923. PHOTO: Carpenter Collection, US Library of Congress

Less than an hour’s drive outside Johannesburg, on the West Witwatersrand, lie two gold mines owned by a mining company called Sibanye Gold. Sibanye Gold was once a subsidiary of mining giant Goldfields, but as of February 2013 became an independent company.

Sibanye Gold, from a corporate perspective, has a good story to tell. It is South Africa’s largest gold producer. Its two West Witwatersrand mines are two of the world’s richest ever gold mines. As far back as 2005, Driefontein produced its 100 millionth ounce of gold. At a conference in Denver last year, Sibanye’s CEO Neal Froneman called the company’s operations “cash cows”.

It’s easy to have a mental picture of mines as resembling the “dark satanic mills” that poet William Blake wrote of in the Industrial Revolution. But driving into Sibanye’s headquarters in Libanon, a kind of residential suburb built around the mines, what strikes you is how peaceful everything looks on the surface. Lush green lawns buttress neat pathways. Every now and then, a miner coming off shift can be spotted walking back to his accommodation, hard hat in hand.

These mining hostels have traditionally had a reputation for being squalid, overcrowded, and sometimes violent. In June last year, aspirant South African politician and former Gold Fields chair Mamphela Ramphele called them “an insult to the dignity of people”. At Sibanye, they’re no longer called “hostels”. The company now brands them as “high-density residential areas”, and says they’re increasingly being phased out to be replaced with small shared houses.

This is the softer, more human face of mining that most mining houses are now at pains to project – particularly after the Marikana massacre of August 2012, which saw 34 striking gold miners shot dead by police. Peter Turner, COO of Sibanye Gold, speaks of a culture of “typically caring: caring for our employees, caring for each other, and that way we tie up our whole strategy”.

But if modern-day South African mining is acutely conscious of positioning themselves as being deeply concerned about – and responsible for -  the wellbeing of their employees, that certainly wasn’t always the case. In few aspects is this more obvious than in the legacy of disease among former mineworkers.

“It’s medical, it’s political, and it’s deadly.” That’s the summary of one mining insider, who spoke to the Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity, about the problem of silicosis. It’s also a problem which current mine chiefs like to hand off on to previous generations; because you can develop silicosis up to 20 years after finishing work on the mines, it’s very hard to chart progress in preventing the disease in current workers.

The idea that respiratory diseases are a historical problem, long since dealt with, has been one rehearsed by the mining industry for at least the last 30 years. In 1979, for instance, mining historian Elaine Katz would write: “It is claimed by some arguments that tuberculosis is not a mining disease at all, and that the industry is being forced ‘to pay for its past sins’ (which have) ‘long since ceased to be the case’.”

But the truth is that the South African mining industry, although being aware of the twin problems of TB and silicosis, has failed to control the diseases – while, paradoxically, being under a lot of pressure from a militant lobby of white miners in the first decades of the twentieth century to do so.

Elsewhere in the world, it was recognised that if you could effectively control dust in the mines, you could control silicosis.

“They imposed a dust standard on the granite mines of Vermont, where they had a raging epidemic in the 1920s,” explains Wits Emeritus Professor Tony Davies. “They imposed a dust standard and enforced it, and got rid of the TB and silicosis. In Western Australia, which is quite like South Africa in terms of its mineral deposits, they imposed a dust standard in 1979 and they haven’t had a new case of silicosis in someone who started work after 1979. I mean, even if that’s only half right, it’s an achievement.”

South Africa has had dust control mechanisms and regulations in place for almost a century. Despite this, the Leon Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry in 1995 found that “no evidence was submitted to show that dust levels had decreased” over the previous 50 years.

A 2003 Mine Health and Safety Summit set a target for South African mines which stated that by December 2008, there should be less than 0,1 mg of silica dust in one cubic metre of air. After December 2013, the same milestones stated, “no new cases of silicosis will occur among previously unexposed individuals”. Public health experts are deeply skeptical that this will be the case, and one of the reasons is the findings of the Mine Health and Safety Council’s 2003 study into silicosis prevalence among older black mineworkers.

That study found that all of the workers whose chests they examined had worked at an exposure to silica dust of less than 0,1 mg per cubic metre. But almost a quarter still had silicosis. “The high silicosis prevalence confirms the lack of protectiveness of this level against silicosis,” the study concluded. In fact, it went even further, stating that the data suggested that even an exposure level of 0,05 mg per cubic metre would not offer full protection against silicosis.

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At Sibanye Gold, COO Turner explains that they have dropped the dust exposure to the 0,05 mg level. “In terms of the elements of the underground world, there’s an element of personal discipline, and there’s also an element of company responsibility,” Turner says. “The company responsibility comes in in terms of allaying dust, and measuring dust levels at regular spots all the time.”

But he stresses that the management of dust underground is not simply a matter that mines alone can handle. “If there’s an area where there’s a sign, for example, that says ‘wear dust masks in this area’, it’s recognized as an area that possibly has a high increment of dust count,” Turner says. “Typically the individual must then wear his dust mask and put it on. It’s not kind of the norm, but there are areas where we have crushers and so on, where we would expect people to wear these.”

Anecdotal reports suggest, however, both that dusk masks are not always available, and that miners frequently fail to wear the masks as they should.

“I can tell you that it’s very difficult at the rock temperatures that we have underground to wear any obstruction around your face,” Professor Davies says. “The other thing is that in principle, we need to control the dust, not put masks on the workers.”

Workers are also technically entitled by law not to enter a dusty area, but it’s easy to imagine why many would choose not to exercise their rights. “You know, the worker’s working for bonuses, because they don’t pay people enough, and earning a pittance at the end of it,” scoffs the National Institute of Occupational Health’s Jill Murray. “He’s not going to take a bit of a chance?”

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Mines these days employ a number of techniques to attempt to reduce workers’ exposure to dust. The provision of safety equipment like dust masks is just one. Turner says Sibanye takes pains to “allay dust mechanically through the tunnels”, and to adequately water down working areas underground. Davies has doubts that the spraying of water is sufficient. “It increases the humidity, for a start,” he says. “The dust forms nuclei for the droplet and when the droplet evaporates, then that dust particle is still in the air.”

A preferable approach, Davies suggests, would focus on extractive ventilation: “instead of allowing the dusty air to find its own way out of the mine, to let the clean air find its way into the mine and extract the dusty air, which would mean a complete reversal of what they’re doing at the moment.”

Is there a surefire way of mining gold which would lessen workers’ exposure to dust? “Mining without people there,” the mining insider responds, and he isn’t joking. It was reported in February this year that mining giants AngloGold Ashanti and Gold Fields are both working on developing mechanized methods of extracting ore. In terms of one of their new methods, a “long-hole drilling machine” and eight people are capable of doing the work of hundreds of South African miners in a month.

This is the central paradox of South African mining: that despite its attendant health and safety problems, the industry offers vital employment to those who desperately need it. As of 2012, there were just under 140 000 people employed in the gold shafts alone. AngloGold Ashanti estimates that more than 13 million people in South Africa are directly dependent for their daily food on money from jobs created by the mining sector. With so much at stake, it’s little wonder that many are willing to gamble with their health.

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MAIN IMAGE: The sun shines through the pit head at Cooke Shaft gold mine near Johannesburg, September 22, 2005. Mike Hutchings, Reuters