Occupational health and safety is a particularly critical area of activity for the mining sector. Miners are put right into the heart of some of the most dangerous working conditions in the world. DANIELLE DU TOIT reports.
Mining is vital to our economic stability and continued growth, but South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world, and thus the toughest working conditions – how do employers and employees mitigate against risk in such a hazard-filled environment?
The Mine Health and Safety Act aims to provide a safe and secure environment for all those on mines in South Africa. The goal is to create a safe mining culture, and this can only possibly be achieved if both employee and employer strive to make mines accident free.
AngloGold Ashanti’s TauTona gold mine west of Gauteng stretches almost four kilometres into the earth – and the geothermic temperature rises about 14°C with each kilometre. Although this mine is the deepest in the world, it did not experience a single fatality in 2011. In the last three years, there have been no deaths as a result of non-compliance. But not all mines are achieving these kinds of figures.
Addressing the National Council of Provinces on May 3, 2012, Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mineral Resources, noted that the mining industry had been reporting at least 500 fatalities a year prior to 1994. There has been a downward trend since then.
“With a tinge of optimism, but also deep regret,” she said, “I can report that during 2011, a total of 123 mine workers were reported dead as compared to 127 in 2010.” This translates to an improvement of about three percent.” She added that 39 deaths had been recorded so far this year (January to April 2012), compared to 42 in the same period in 2011.
The most common cause of mining fatalities is ground fall, followed by accidents involving machines, chemicals and vehicles. Ground fall presents particular challenges because it’s difficult to predict.
What mine safety officers are able to do, however, is educate workers on the risks associated with working on a mine and make sure that they are supplied with the correct personal protective equipment (PPE).
Cobus de Klerk, a safety officer at Impala Platinum’s Rustenburg mine, says: “Impala is very serious about safety. We are backed by management, and all the correct procedures, systems and standards are in place. PPE is readily available at every shaft and is free of charge, thus there is no excuse for not having it. Random checks are done, and people who aren’t compliant are sent to fetch the necessary items.”
PPE is an important factor in mine occupational health and safety – and not just in the short term. If used correctly, PPE can save a miner’s life today and in 10 years’ time.
A further challenge is that of noise. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a disorder that results from long term exposure to high intensity sound over 80 decibels (Db). The employer is responsible for supplying correct ear protection equipment to those who might be exposed to noise levels which might cause injury. However, this is not followed as stringently as it should be in South Africa.
Another problem that develops over time is silicosis. This is a usually- lethal lung disease that attacks the lungs after prolonged inhalation of silica dust which arises during underground drilling.
Tuberculosis (TB) associated with exposure to silica dust is a growing concern in the mining industry, and increasing HIV-infection levels have led to a doubling in new TB cases and increased mortality.
About 3 300 AngloGold Ashanti employees at the TauTona and Great Nologwa mines have consented to participating in the largest TB research programme undertaken in the South African mining industry. The aim is to establish whether countrywide TB prevention is more effective than standard TB control.
These ailments are easily preventable, but until recently there has been a severe lack of related safety effort and, more importantly, enforcement of measures outlined in the Mine Health and Safety Act. To illustrate what could have been achieved had the right measures been implemented is the fact that there hasn’t been a single new reported case of silicosis in Brazil in the last five years.
AngloGold Ashanti has put in place a series of steps to reduce not only NIHL and silicosis, but all mine-related incidents. A company statement reads: “We will monitor the effects of the company’s operational activities on the safety and health of our employees and will conduct regular performance reviews.”
This includes monitoring radiation, gases and physical injury. There are also physical and emotional stress factors and fatigue issues that are now at the top of its “to watch” list. Housing issues are also paramount right now. The company believes the involvement of employees in the area of safety and health is crucial.
“As a safety officer, the best part of my job is to make a difference,” says Impala Platinum’s De Klerk. “If I have shared my knowledge and experience, and someone has benefited from it, then that is the greatest reward.”