Striving for a zero-fatality rate in mines

By Dineo Phoshoko

South Africa has a history of tragic mine disasters where many mineworkers lose their lives while working underground in the mines. Recent legislation has helped to decrease the number of mine deaths, however mine fatalities remain a major concern for the mines.

Mining provides a livelihood for many mine workers and their dependants. The mining industry is therefore very important but can also be very dangerous. There have been several tragic mine disasters that have occurred in the past. Many lives were lost in these disasters as a result. Mine safety legislation is now a necessity towards reducing the amount of tragedies in mines.

Tragic mine accidents
Mining in South Africa goes as far back as the 1800s and since then, there have been many mine accidents where hundreds of mine workers lost their lives. 

The worst mining accident in the history of South Africa happened on 21 January 1960 at the Coalbrook mine near Sasolburg. More than 400 mine workers died when the mine caved in. It is believed that 900 pillars disintegrated underground leading to collapse of the mine trapping at least 400 miners underground. Unfortunately, during those times, machines capable of drilling large enough holes to rescue the miners were not available. The mine shaft was eventually abandoned and sealed with concrete.

Kimberley 001 web
The Big Hole at Kimberly’s diamond mine.
Image: Pixabay

Another mine that claimed many lives is the Kinross Mine where 177 mineworkers died on 16 September 1986. An acetylene cylinder burst and caused flames through the mine tunnel. The 177 miners died because of the toxic fumes that filled the shafts. In addition, 235 miners were also injured in the accident. 

In 1995, 104 mineworkers died at the Vaal Reefs Mine after a locomotive fell into a lift shaft and landed on cage that was carrying mineworkers to the surface. All 104 were crushed to death by the locomotive. 

Other significant mine accidents in South Africa include the mudslide that occurred in November 1996 at Rovic Diamond Mine, which killed 20 mineworkers. Eight years ago, nine miners died at Impala Platinum’s Rustenburg mine following a rock fall. More recently, more than 70 mineworkers were trapped underground at Lily Gold Mine close to Barberton, after the crown pillar collapsed on 6 February 2016. The bodies of three mineworkers still trapped underground have yet to be recovered. 

Mine fatalities and legislation 
National Secretary for Health and Safety at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Erick Gcilitshana says that the accident causes depended on each individual case, adding that in most cases rockfalls and seismicity frequent factors of mine accidents. 

He also explains that previously about 7 000 mine deaths and 15 000 injuries were recorded on an annual basis. “In terms of legislation, the Minerals Act in South Africa did not give rights to workers,” explains Gcilitshana. 

“As with most legislation, it comes down to enforcement, interpretation and application by the persons who are responsible for health and safety, in terms of the MHSA.”

He adds that it was through the “blood, and sweat and tears of those who died” that former President Nelson Mandela established a commission of enquiry. The enquiry came after the Vaal Reefs disaster. “When comrade Mandela took over, he said that it can’t be business as usual when mineworkers are dying like this. Therefore, there must be a commission of enquiry which he called in 1993. He officially endorsed it when he took over as a state president in 1994.”

The Leon Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the Vaal Reefs disaster and commenced in 1995. “Key issues that were realised during the commission included that mine workers in South Africa did not have the four human rights that were enjoyed by other workers all over the world, where some of the very same mining houses were operating,” he says. 

The four human rights he is referring to include:

  1. The right to refuse to do dangerous work
  2. The right to education and training
  3. The right to information
  4. The right to representation and participation

The Chamber of Mines states that the Vaal Reefs accident played an essential role in the drafting of new legislation. Gcilitshana shares the same view saying that the four rights are now included in the current Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA). He highlights a section in the act, Section 54, where a health and safety inspector has the right to make a call for operations to be ceased should – during inspection – they encounter potentially harmful conditions in the mine. 

Much has been done not only to decrease the number of fatalities and accidents at mines, but also to improve and create awareness around mine health and safety. For these purposes the Mine Health and Safety Act, 1996 (Act No.29 of 1996) was established with the main objective to provide protection of the health and safety of employees and other people at the mines. 

In addition, the act also promotes a culture of health and safety as well as enforces the legislation. Through this act, the Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate was established to ensure that the statutory mandate of the Department of Mineral Resources is executed. In addition, the Inspectorate must also safeguard the health and safety of mineworkers and communities that are affected by mining operations.

Warren Beech, partner and head of mining at Hogan Lovells, explains the role of the inspectorate in a situation where a mine accident has occurred. 

“Following an accident at a mine, the inspectors from the Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate are immediately deployed to the mine, where investigations in terms of Section 60 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, No.29 of 1996, is initiated and includes an inspection of the accident.” 

Beech explains that once the initial inspection is concluded a directive to halt operations at the mine is issued in terms of Section 54 of the act. This allows inspectors to attend to potential non-compliance at the mine. Before the directive to stop mine operations can be lifted, the mine’s senior management must be present during the upliftment presentation process. “Where a person has been fatally injured, the Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate must conduct and enquiry, in terms of Section 65 of the MHSA,” adds Beech. 

Once an inquiry is concluded, the presiding officer prepares a report of the findings along with recommendations on the way forward. Depending on the outcome of the enquiry, consequences would either be an administrative fine imposed on the corporate entity owners of the mine, or in more severe cases, criminal prosecution of the employer or individuals involved in the accident. Another possible consequence is that the mine could be forced to stop operations entirely. 

“We believe that a zero-fatality rate is possible.”

Beech comments that although the MHSA is a ‘good piece of legislation’ that fares well compared to other mining countries, implementation of the act is essential to ensure that it is effective. “As with most legislation, it comes down to enforcement, interpretation and application by the persons who are responsible for health and safety, in terms of the MHSA.” He adds that it is important for all stakeholders to apply the rules and workplace procedures as well as comply with the requirements. 

Some of the factors which have negatively impacted on the health and safety of miners include mines that are placed on care and maintenance due to the economy, uncertainty around mining laws and volatile markets. 

Working towards a zero-fatality rate
Although the number of mine fatalities has drastically decreased over the years, mine fatalities are still a concern. But Erick Gcilitshana is optimistic that it is possible for mines to achieve a zero-fatality rate. 

“We believe that a zero-fatality rate is possible.” In the first quarter of 2017, AngloGold Ashanti managed to have a fatality free quarter. The mining company also achieved a fatality free quarter for the second time. “In addition, the company’s mines in South Africa reached a new milestone of more than 300 fatality free days,” says Chris Nthite, vice president of Group Communications at AngloGold Ashanti. 

Despite this impressive record, the mining company suffered a fatality in July last year where a mineworker died after being struck by a locomotive at the TauTona Mine in Carletonville. “Like in any heavy industry, and especially in a company like ours that employs more than 50 000 people globally, human error remains our greatest challenge.” 

To learn from the accident and avoid similar accidents from occurring in future, Nthite says that AngloGold Ashanti implemented rail bound technologies to ensure that further similar incidents do not occur. “These include front driven trains and automatic coupling devices,” adds Nthite. 

Gcilitshana adds that there is a significant improvement in mine fatalities. “From 2013 we have observed, with the single accidents, at least less than 100 people are dying a year.” He attributes the reduction of mine fatalities to a section in the MHSA that allows for a tripartite forum to be established. This tripartite forum includes mining companies, the Mine Health and Safety Council, workers and government. He adds that the issue of safety in mines was not only the concern of mine operations alone as mine company owners and CEOs need also to be actively involved.

Gcilitshana is optimistic that mine disasters, fatalities and occupational health diseases can be prevented if the correct measures are put in place. These measures include research and recommendations into the prevention of mine disasters and a combined effort from all stakeholders involved in the tripartite forum. “It is possible, it can be done,” he says.

Click below to read the July/August 2017 issue of Mining and Mineral Product review

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