The South African mining industry’s safety performance was once again cast into the spotlight when the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) Chief Inspector of Mines David Msiza released its mine health and safety statistic for 2018.
Eighty-one mineworkers lost their lives in the 2018 calendar year, compared with the 90 fatalities in 2017.
And while, this shows a 10% improvement in the number of fatalities year-on-year, this is still no substantial improvement and remains a cause for concern. CHANTELLE KOTZE writes.
Mine safety in South Africa has undergone a significant and sustained improvement in the 22 years from 1994 to 2016, recording an 86% decline in the number of fatalities.
However, the safety regression in 2017, in which 90 mineworkers lost their lives, was in stark contrast to the 73 lives lost in 2016 – the lowest number of fatalities in South Africa’s mining industry on record.
These results call into question whether the industry’s aim to achieve Zero Harm by December 2020 is realistic or rather an aim towards which the industry should strive to achieve by ensuring that every mineworker returns home unharmed, every single day.
To put the DMR’s latest mine health and safety statistics into context, the industry experienced an 86% decline in the number of fatalities in the 22 years from 1994 to 2016, a significant and continued improvement to the statistics reported pre-1994.
However, 2017 saw a sharp deterioration in which the industry experienced a spike in fatalities – 90 reported during the calendar year.
Mine safety called into question
According to DMR Minister Gwede Mantashe, the fatality trend in 2018 began in a similar fashion to 2017 – with a number of accidents that resulted in multiple fatalities – and which affected the number of fatalities greatly. Three standout accidents occurred in 2018 in which several people lost their lives.
- May 2018: Seven mineworkers were trapped and killed following a seismic event at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Masakhane shaft at the Driefontein mine near Carletonville.
- June 2018: Five mineworkers were killed after entering an abandoned working area at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Kloof Ikamva shaft near Westonaria.
- July 2018: Six mineworkers were trapped in a fire at Phalabora Mining Company’s copper mine in Limpopo.
Speaking at the release of the health and safety statistics in Tshwane in March, Mantashe said what is critical to note is the number of reported fatalities from the gold mining sector in which 40 mineworkers lost their lives in 2018 – a figure that remained the same from 2017 – showing no improvement in the number of fatalities year-on-year.
Moreover, the gold sector reported the highest number of overall fatalities in 2018, he added.
The minister called on the gold sector – one of South Africa’s oldest mined commodities, with some of the deepest shafts globally – to ensure that mines its remaining economic gold resources in the safest possible way.
In contrast to this figure was the platinum industry, which recorded 12 fatalities in 2018, and was the sector to show the highest and most improved decrease in the number of reported fatalities for the year with a 59% decrease in fatalities year-on-year, compared with the 29 lives lost in 2017.
Also recording a decrease in the number of fatalities was the coal sector, which recorded a slight decrease in fatalities from 10 in 2017 to nine in 2018.
With the second highest number of fatalities to that of the gold sector, was the ‘other mines’ sector, which includes diamonds, chrome, copper and iron ore. This sector recorded an 82% increase in the number of fatalities from 11 in 2017 to 20 in 2018.
Although the causes of accidents, injuries and fatalities may vary, the major contributor to the 81 fatalities in 2018 was fall of ground incidents, which were responsible for 31% of fatalities, followed by transportation and mining equipment incidences (trackless mobile machinery) at 9% and general accidents (overcome by gas) at 9%.
In contrast to the number of fatalities, the South African mining industry has made significant headway in decreasing the number of occupational injuries sustained in 2018 – noting an overall 12% decrease in the number of injuries, from 2,669 in 2017 to 2,350 in 2018.
The number of injuries decreased across the board in the gold, coal and platinum sectors, decreasing by 15%, 22% and 11% respectively, while the ‘other mines’ sector recorded a 2% increase from 291 in 2017 to 296 in 2018.
“While there has been an improvement in the number of fatalities in 2018, we as government are greatly concerned that we are still losing lives in the mining sector mainly caused by repeat accidents such as fall of ground, transportation related incidents and general accidents,” says Msiza.
Occupational health statistics holds promise
In terms of occupational diseases, the major diseases reported by the sector include noise-induced hearing loss, silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis (TB).
There has been a slight 3% decrease in recorded occupational diseases from 4,632 cases in 2016 to 4,483 cases in 2017 (the latest available statistics as 2018 results are only reported end of February 2019).
Noise-induced hearing loss cases increased from 966 in 2016 to 1,141 in 2017, while reported silicosis cases increased from 635 in 2016 to 653 in 2018.
A slight decrease in the number of TB cases was reported, down from 2,580 in 2016 to 2,247 in 2017.
A possible reason for this is the effectiveness of the Masoyise iTB campaign, where government, organised labour and the industry are working closely to increase screening and testing for tuberculosis and HIV not only among employees but also in the communities where they live.
“It is encouraging to note that the mining sector has placed increased focus on health issues, which has been characterised by an 8% increase in the reporting of medical health issues (Annual Medical Reports) from 902 in 2016 to 975 in 2017,” says Msiza.
He adds that this has enabled the DMR to provide more comprehensive data and trends in terms of health issues.
The number of medical deaths decreased in both gold and coal, with 15 deaths reported in the gold sector and one in the coal sector in 2017.
The platinum and ‘other mines’ sectors reported an increase in medical deaths with seven and two reported respectively, while no medical deaths were reported in the diamond sector in 2017, compared with one medical death reported in 2017.
“We have agreed as a sector that this is a focus area that we need to constantly improve on, as we aim to reduce the number of medical deaths,” says Msiza.
Fatality improvement measures
Following the spike in fatalities in the South African mining industry, the DMR has recommitted itself to ensuring and prioritising the safety of all mine employees at all times.
In so doing, it issued two health and safety directives in November 2018 – the first to eliminate fire, heat and oxygen deficiency related accidents; and the second to eliminate rock-bursts and rock fall related accidents.
According to Msiza, the department intends to monitor and enforce compliance through inspections and audits to ensure the implementation of these directives.
In addressing the issue of fall of ground incidents, the DMR, in collaboration with the Mine Qualification Authority, Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC), Council for Geosciences and the South African Institute of Rock Engineers are in the process of training 40 learners in the field of rock engineering and seismology.
This is being done to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of competent people who have been trained to improve health and safety standards and processes.
Moreover, significant investments have been made by the MHSC on addressing seismicity and resultant fall of ground incidents associated with deep-level mines as well as on fundamental and applied research and technology transfer.
According to Mantashe, the department, together with regional tripartite forums comprising government, industry and labour, will also continue to conduct health and safety workshops to train and coach health and safety representatives to exercise their rights and powers as stipulated in the Mine Health and Safety Act
Speaking on behalf of the Minerals Council of South Africa, VP Andile Sangqu noted that the improvement would not have been possible if all tripartite partners, including government and labour had, not worked together in partnership to address the safety challenges facing the industry.
“But, this improvement is no ground for complacency,” he said, noting that efforts to improve further will continue, even when the goal of zero fatalities is reached.
In addition to the health and safety improvement measures initiated by the DMR, the Minerals Council has also initiated a number of measures designed to urgently address the deteriorating trend, said Sangqu.
This was largely by the CEO Zero Harm Forum and included intensified scrutiny on the major causes of accidents, the sharing of good practice as well as additional and fundamental research through the Mine Health and Safety Commission.
Part of this initiative was the launch in August 2018 of the National Day of Safety & Health in Mining, where all mines of all Minerals Council members were asked to hold special days at which safety and health would be front and centre of each and every person at each and every mine, across all disciplines and jobs.
“We cautiously believe that this increasing level of awareness had some impact on raising awareness, and increasing commitment to Zero Harm,” Sanqu concluded.