South Africa’s Minerals Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane reported during a media briefing in January this year that 2015 saw the lowest number of fatalities ever recorded in the mining sector’s history – 77 in total, down from 84 in 2014 and 94 in 2013. While zero harm remains the overriding theme for all industry stakeholders moving forward, 2016 has already been tainted with a number of tragic fatalities which will hopefully not impact the decreasing trend in fatalities for the year writes Laura Cornish.

A bumpy start

The on-going tragedy at Vantage Goldfields’ Lily gold mine, situated within the Barberton Greenstone belt, continues to cast a shadow over the South African mining sector. Unfortunately, just a week after Zwane announced the mining sector’s 2015 health and safety statistics, Lily experienced a fall of ground collapse which caused a massive sinkhole on surface (at the bottom of the old open pit and adjacent to the adit and underground mine entrance) which has expanded further after a secondary ground collapse.

To date, three workers remain unaccounted for following the second fall of ground which saw a lamp room container buried beneath about 80 m of earth. Positively, all of the company’s employees working underground at the time of the collapse were safely recovered and brought to surface. At the time of going to print a shaft drilling rescue exercise had commenced on site in an attempt to access the container.

Impala Platinum etched its name onto the fatality list in January this year after four of its employees were tragically killed at its Rustenburg 14 Shaft after a fi re outbreak underground. Harmony Gold and Sibanye Gold have not escaped the year unscathed either.

Harmony suff ered a fatality at its Masimong gold mine in the Free State province on the same day as the minister’s safety briefi ng. It was caused by a fall of ground accident. Sibanye’s fatality was the result of a materials handling accident at Cooke Shaft 3 in February. Platinum junior Atlatsa Resources also lost an employee in February to a utility vehicle accident at its Bokoni mine. Hopefully 2016 will not be tainted any further with fatalities, ensuring that the industry’s ongoing trend to steadily reduce its death rate every year continues.

Noteworthy safety achievements in 2015

“It is noteworthy that 2015 saw the lowest ever fatalities recorded in the mining sector.

This is encouraging and an indication that our combined eff orts as stakeholders are bearing fruit,” Zwane emphasised during his media briefi ng. Although questions were raised on the accuracy of the results following a drop in the number of employees in the sector from previous years, as well as the fi ve month platinum strike in 2014, the minister declared the results were based on a percentage of the number of million man hours worked. The reduction in fatalities, caused largely by fall of ground accidents, from 84 in 2014 to 77 in 2015 refl ects an 8% year on year improvement. Zwane says South Africa now compares favourably with countries such as the United States and Canada in terms of its fatality rates.

However, the number of accounted injuries increased quite signifi cantly from 2 700 in 2014 to 3 116 in 2015 – accountable again to the platinum strike downtime period.

Some improvement in occupational diseases

The number of reported occupational diseases decreased from 6 810 in 2013 to 6 577 in 2014 – as per the reporting period. Nationally, the rate of silicosis cases decreased by 24%, pulmonary tuberculosis cases increased by 9%, and silicotuberculosis cases decreased by 27%.

Noise-induced hearing loss increased by 5%, coal workers pneumoconiosis decreased by 23% while asbestos cases increased by 50% – a manifestation which only displays physical symptoms years or even decades after exposure. (South Africa’s asbestos mines were closed some 20 years ago.)

Zwane noted that statutory reporting has improved – particularly on HIV and tuberculosis (by 49%), with mines timeously submitting their occupational hygiene returns and annual medical reports. A number of initiatives which have been established are expected to further enhance health and safety in the industry, which in addition to stakeholder collaboration includes the implementation of the 2014 Mine, Health and Safety Tripartite Summit and prioritising health and safety for women in mining.

The voice of the industry

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) national secretary for health and safety Eric Gcilitshana and Solidarity sustainable development and relations head Leigh McMaster both welcomed the decline in fatalities but emphasised the importance of working towards zero harm. “We believe this is a result of a number of interventions that have been done together with management, the DMR and ourselves as organised labour,” said Gcilitshana.

“Where larger mining companies have participated actively in health and safety there has been a major regression in the fatalities,” McMaster noted. According to a study undertaken by Solidarity, 23 of the smaller mining operations contributed to about 43% of the total fatalities.

“We’ve emphasised that stakeholders from business, labour and government need to continuously engage with one another and actively participate in measures as outlined by the DMR. Overall there is improvement but we need to reach the ultimate goals and milestones set out by the Mine Health and Safety Council which demands zero harm.”

Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) president Joseph Mathunjwa was not as complimentary, stating that the issue of health and safety is about people, not numbers.

He called for a change in the Compensation of Occupational Injuries and Disease Act legislation which would see mines legally accountable for fatalities. “Section 54s are no more than a mere PR exercise where mines can still recover lost production time. Workers are dying and losing limbs with no compensation. This remains an unresolved challenge.”

Chamber of Mines president Mike Teke and vice president Graham Briggs both congratulated the DMR and industry for its 2015 achievements. “The changes which have happened over the last 21 years are dramatic and noteworthy but we are always disappointed to lose workers and we are disappointed with 77 fatalities – we thought we could do better,” said Briggs. “From the Chamber’s viewpoint, we welcome the results but we must continue driving for zero harm,” said Teke. MRA

*Footnote: All mining photographs courtesy of photographer Geoff Brown and Anglo American