A culture of safety

By Kelly-Ann Prinsloo

We look at South Africa’s mining culture and the way in which it contributes to how safe (or unsafe) mineworkers are daily.

South Africa is a treasure trove of mineral wealth: deposits of nearly every precious stone, mineral and metal known to humankind have been unearthed here to some degree.

In Phalaborwa, home to the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, the Sotho people had been digging up copper as far back as 400 CE. Modern commercial mining began in earnest, however, with the discovery of a ‘shiny rock’ on a farm on the banks of the Orange River in 1866. That shiny rock is known as the 21-carat Eureka diamond. Three years later, the discovery of the 83.5-carat Star of South Africa sparked the country’s first great mineral rush, with more than five thousand diggers rushing first to the Vaal River and then on to Kimberley.

The gold rush of 1886 began when gold was discovered on Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand, and would continue in earnest for more than a century. That gold is the foundation upon which South Africa was built.

For more than 100 years, mining has playing a defining role in South Africa’s collective identity. South Africa’s strong mining culture has persisted for many decades, but has been forced to evolve over the years as the industry and the technology it employs also evolved.

Despite this, health and safety on mines is still a major concern. Last year, mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane went on a safety crusade: by applying section 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is able to shut down mining operations while it conducts investigations in the event of a mine accident. Section 55 of the Act allows it to shut down a part of the mine.

In July this year, Sibanye Gold’s chief executive officer, Neal Froneman, said the DMR was “destroying hundreds of millions, if not billions of rand in value”, because of unnecessary safety stops. According to Froneman, Sibanye has lost R135-million in revenue in the 12 months to June 2016 at its Kroondal platinum mine due to government safety stops.

The DMR responded to Froneman’s complaint by saying that society cannot afford to compromise human lives in the interest of commercial gains.

This has been a key problem in South Africa’s mining industry since 1866 — the financial well-being of the mine is more important than that of the people who work there. However, strides have been made in ensuring worker safety: data from the Chamber of Mines shows that the death toll in South African mines (which are the deepest in the world) fell for seven straight years to a record low of 77 deaths in 2015. In 1993, 615 South African miners died on the job.

But problems persist.

Safety culture

In April 2005, the results of the South African mining industry’s safety culture survey — initiated by the Mine Health and Safety Council’s research arm, SIMRAC, and carried out by SAFEmap — were released.

According to the Mine Health and Safety Council, the purpose of the survey was to identify strategic opportunities and a direction for the mining industry’s safety effort. This was to be done by analysing the major strengths and weaknesses in the work culture of South African mines. A secondary objective was to make comparisons with other international mining industries. Fourteen mines participated, all selected to represent a stratified sample of the industry.

From April 2004 to April 2005, a total of 8 991 mine employees were interviewed and the following conclusions were made from the survey results:

  • Overall, the safety and health culture in the South African mining industry is significantly more negative than that of the Australian and international benchmarks.
  • All levels, except the specialist group, record more negative trends than the benchmarks.
  • The South African mining industry is driven primarily by a systems and compliance-based culture.
  • Mines with a more positive historical performance recorded a more positive safety and health culture than those mines with a poorer historical performance.
  • Large differences exist between the safety and health culture of mines.
  • The gold mining sector records a slight but statistically significant negative trend when compared to the other sectors.
  • Smaller mines recorded safety and health culture trends that are more positive than that of the larger mines.
  • Additional focus on the role of the safety and health culture in the industry should be pursued.
  • Emphasis must be made on creating a learning culture for safety and health in the industry.
  • There should be a progression from a systems and compliance driven culture.
  • Attention should be given to the scope and the nature of safety and health consultation.
  • A changing role of leadership in the industry should be pursued.
  • Attempts should be made to restructure large mines to be managed as smaller mines.
  • The role of government and regulators must facilitate a change in the safety and health culture.

This survey was conducted more than a decade ago, but the data has not changed. In fact, according to the National Union of Mineworkers, the number of deaths in 2016 so far (59) have exceeded the number of deaths in the same period last year (48).

A solution for all

The big question then is: how can we make our mines safer? The DMR is already instituting stoppages at mines around the country, much to the ire of many mine owners. But what more can be done?

The Mine Health and Safety Council, in its 2005 survey, made the following recommendations:

It also recommended that the survey results be distributed widely in the industry. Because not only is it important for mine owners and managers to adhere to strict safety regulations; it is also important that workers know how to keep themselves and their colleagues safe.

Reinhold Eisenbarth, Draeger regional segment manager Mining (Africa, Asia, Australia), said, “Visual training material is of key importance in a multilingual society.”

With 11 official languages, South Africa is one of the most multilingual countries in the world. And, while it can be safely assumed that most educated South Africans understand basic English, many mineworkers are not educated in the traditional sense and might not speak or read English well enough to understand sometimes complicated safety instructions. It is also not always possible to cater for every language, which is why training materials, safety signs and so on should be visually presented.


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