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More than 100 recorded deaths in South African mines last year
19 January 2012
More than 100 recorded deaths in South African mines last year
More than 100 people died in SA’s mines last year. The number represents an ongoing failure to meet the industry’s target of achieving “zero harm”, reiterated over the past decade.
 
About 300000 people work in SA’s deep-level gold and platinum mines, where huge rock pressures add to mining’s other major hazard of moving equipment.
 
Preliminary figures to end-November last year show 116 people died on the mines compared with 128 in 2010 and 168 in 2009. The industry is awaiting the final 2011 figures from the department of mineral resources (DMR). At least another three people died in the first two weeks of January.
 
Paul Mardon, head of trade union Solidarity’s department of occupational health & safety, says many mineworkers were retrenched after 2010 but that the number of deaths has not dropped significantly. This implies more fatalities as a percentage of the workforce last year than in 2009 or 2010.
 
He says good progress has been made by the industry since 2007, in consultation with trade unions, but it doesn’t seem to have been enough. The effectiveness of measures to make mines safer levelled off last year and may even have deteriorated.
 
One reason could be that the commitment of senior management to health and safety isn’t fully shared by supervisors, who are responsible for production targets as well as safety.
 
“The dictates of production targets often tend to be predisposed in favour of production and not compliance with safety standards,” Mardon says.
 
National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka agrees. “The mining industry seems to see anything to do with safety as a punishment because it costs production,” he says.
 
“You will find that towards the end of the month, if the production performance is falling behind, team leaders will push hard to catch up, which creates dangerous working conditions. The bonus should be based on both meeting production targets and meeting them safely.”
 
Mardon says many accidents are caused by human error and that it seems workers are no longer listening to the health and safety messages . New and innovative ways have to be found to get those messages through.
 
A highly emotive issue last year was how often the DMR shut mines temporarily after incidents while investigating the causes. Apart from the costs in lost production, opponents of this move suggest it “breaks the mining rhythm” so when the mine re starts there’s an immediate spike in safety incidents.
 
“Yes, it is true that when a mine is shut it costs production, but companies need to recognise that safety is as important as production and you should invest in both,” Seshoka says. “Mines stopped under section 54 notices can still be maintained. Safer mines are more productive.”
 
Though Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland regularly reiterates at public presentations that “if we cannot mine safely, we will not mine at all”, 18 people were killed on Gold Fields mines last year against 17 in 2010. But there’s no hint that the company might shut unsafe mines, nor is there any support from the unions for such a move.
 
Mardon rejects complete closure of unsafe mines as it doesn’t benefit the economy, the mines or the workers, he says.
 
Seshoka says there are other solutions. SA mines should invest in technology used in almost all other mining countries to predict seismicity, so underground workers should be evacuated when the risks are high.
 
A Chamber of Mines spokesman says it cannot comment until the DMR releases full-year accident statistics. It will then reveal what it will do differently this year to improve safety.
 
Seshoka takes exception to the suggestion that strict safety rules deter foreign investment. If foreign investors are to build mines in SA in which their employees die, they “must take their money elsewhere”, he says.
 
fm.co.za
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