An unintended but potentially damaging erosion of authority structures at the workface might be bad for safety underground as and when platinum mineworkers return to work, according to SRK Consulting (SA) chairman Roger Dixon.

“The relationship between workers and supervisors – indeed, even between workers of different trade union affiliations – can’t be good after all the conflict of the past months,” said Dixon. “There could be pressure on safety performance if there is not a high level of discipline, as workers will be looking to regain bonuses after months without an income.”

He said that the industry had still not managed to de-link the incentives for higher production levels from the daily demands of health and safety in the workplace.

The reform of the health and safety legislation in mining began with the Leon Commission of Enquiry in 1994, which was followed by the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) in 1996. Dixon, who attended the commission and also participated as a mining house representative in negotiating the Act, said this had provided a new and positive foundation for improved safety in mining.

Indeed, fatalities have been substantially reduced on South African mines; in the decade up to 2012, for instance, total fatalities across all minerals more than halved despite total employment increasing.

“The fact remains, however, that our labour intensive underground mining methods still present regular and real dangers to miners at the rockface,” he said. “We have made little progress in removing the worker from the location of the energy source in a mine – the stope or development end – and that remains a dangerous place to be.”

He said that underground drilling and blasting activities are still usually undertaken manually in deep-level gold and platinum mines, despite extensive research and development efforts up to the 1990s. After that, the re-engineering of the mining houses into smaller, leaner corporate entities put a stop to most of the collaboratively funded research into mining technology in SA.

Even from a health point of view, manual rockdrilling continues to pose hazards as silica dust is released from the drillhole into the working environment, bringing with it the threat of silicosis.

“The improvement in safety performance since the law was changed in 1996 does indicate progress, but we are unlikely to see these improvements continue at their current rate if we cannot effectively mechanise operations in areas of the mine where most rockbursts and falls of ground occur,” said Dixon.

He also pointed to the need for more effective implementation of the codes of practice that mines were meant to apply in their various areas of operation. While the MHSA put various important principles in place – like the right to refuse to perform dangerous work – it was the codes that often became the mechanism for implementing better safety practice.

“This is fine up to a point, but there is still the need for the Department of Mineral Resources to audit these codes of practice at each mine site, and to ensure they are being applied,” he said. “The department does not always have the capacity to tackle technical issues with mining company experts; the pay-scales offered by government, for instance, are simply not sufficient to attract the expertise required.”

The ‘Section 54’ powers granted to departmental officials – referring to the ability to close an operation after an accident – are also sometimes used counter-productively, said Dixon; by reducing the working days in month, these stoppages disadvantage those workers on bonus incentives and can even heighten the risk of workers taking safety short-cuts to make up for lost time.

He said the mines needed a longer term sector strategy to improve health and safety performance that would address productivity, mechanisation and profitability in a way that would not place any of these factors in conflict with each other.

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