Safety fatalities
While mining is still largely a labour-intensive process, the industry makes use of a wide range of technologies to reduce and prevent fatalities. (Image courtesy of Anglo Platinum) Support: Central to curbing underground accidents, as far as possible, is the removal of miners from working-face dangers. Where this is not possible, technology is directed at protecting employees. (Image courtesy of Lonmin)

Until 2016 and prior, it seemed like the collective goal of the industry achieving its Zero Harm target was well on track.

An almost 88% decrease in the number of fatalities since 1993 paints a positive picture.

However, mining in South Africa has been rocked by a safety regression in the past two years.

This begs the question: Is achieving the target of zero mining fatalities by 2020 realistic or just a pipe dream? GERARD PETER reports.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 2, 2019

Not only is the increase in fatalities over the past two years disturbing, but there is also concern stemming from the types of fatal accidents during this period.

For example, in 2018 there were several multiple fatality incidents. The causes include fall of ground due to seismic events, an underground fire and employees entering off-limits areas. So what needs to happen in order to stop this safety regression?

All-inclusive consciousness

According to Charmane Russell, spokesperson for the Mineral Council South Africa (MSCA), there needs to be a focus on a multitude of issues, including continuing emphasis on a safety consciousness at all levels of all organisations, ongoing research into new safety technologies and systems and continued collaboration on safety.

“This collaboration is not only between companies but should also involve the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) and its members, including the safety inspectorate, other arms of the regulatory authorities and employees and their union representatives.”

Russell adds that the MCSA views the the deteriorating trend as a crisis and reacted in a manner that made it very clear that the industry’s performance was not acceptable.

To that end, it launched a number of safety initiatives, including its National Day of Safety & Health in August last year.

The campaign entailed all MCSA members hosting safety and health days at each of their operations to reinforce their commitment to the Zero Harm initiative.

“We believe the campaign had a helpful impact on a number of levels,” states Russell. “Firstly, it brought a number of different parties – management, unions, suppliers, employees and the DMR – together, united in a common goal.

“Most importantly, we engaged with and involved employees at operations across the industry, at every level, in every sector, in every province.”

Another key initiative undertaken by the MCSA is the Zero Harm CEO Forum. Meeting every quarter, this is a platform that enables CEOs to share their respective best practices and other positive safety and health experiences.

“It is based on the understanding that while these companies are competitors in many ways, safety and health are not areas of competition. As such, all positive potential safety measures are shared and implemented, wherever relevant,” explains Russell.

Technology a key driver

While various safety campaigns in the past few months have raised awareness, investing in new technology is one of the fundamentals of mine safety.

Already, through the MHSC, more than R250 million has been spent on research into seismicity associated with deep-level mining. In addition, R40 million has been spent on applied research and technology transfer. The research outcomes have led to new mine designs and methods.

There have also been major technological breakthroughs in mining safety by the Council for Scientific and Industry Research (CSIR). A case in point: In July last year, the CSIR introduced “Monster”, a robot platform with safety inspection sensors that can enter mines during safety periods.

The robot aims to assess and identify risks for underground mines. In addition, Monster is also useful in reaching some of the areas that are inaccessible to humans during an incident.

The CSIR has also developed a pedestrian detection system. It uses a range sensor to determine the distance to each identified person and tracks each person to determine if and when a collision is likely to occur.

Where to from here?

The Zero Harm initiative aims to “get every mine worker home safe every day” and to eradicate fatalities by December 2020. Given the increase in the number of deaths since 2017, it may seem like a tall order.

However, there seems to be a silver lining on this dark cloud overhanging the industry at the moment.

For example, funding into research into seismicity associated with deep-level mining is paying dividends. As a result, the number of fatalities associated with seismicity fell from 48 in 2003 to 14 in 2017.

In addition, the MSCA’s National Day of Safety & Health campaign has also produced a positive outcome.

Russell explains: “By mid-year in 2018, fatalities had increased by 20% compared with the same period the previous year. By 18 December (which is the most recent published figures we have available from the DMR), fatalities were down by 6% on the previous year.” 

However, she adds that the performance is still disappointing and unacceptable and requires much attention.

After all, even a single fatality is one too many and it remains to be seen if Zero Harm’s ultimate objective can still be achieved.

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