Shabangu shake-up on the cards?

Some CEOs value profits more than the lives of their people. That’s the damning indictment from Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mineral Resources. And she seems set to do something about it…

Shabangu was speaking at the Mining Indaba held at the beginning of February in a blisteringly hot Cape Town. As she noted: “You will know that this city has been gripped by a heatwave while many parts of the northern hemisphere shiver in snowdrifts, which has resulted in more than 300 people losing their lives. The icy weather has stretched from Rome and Sarajevo to Kiev and beyond. Such are the vagaries of the weather these days – and, perhaps, of mining too! These climatic extremes are living testimony to the impact of climate change.”

While she spoke with conviction about environmental issues, Shabangu was particularly outspoken when it came to the matter of health and safety on South African mines. “Health and safety in the mining industry is central,” she said. “As government, we will continue to use the Mine Health and Safety Act and related legislation to take appropriate action to ensure that workers have a safe and dignified work environment, that their right to sanctity of life is protected, and that they are able daily to return to their loved ones.”

Shabangu believes industry chief executives should be held liable for avoidable fatalities, and even raised the possibility of court action. As she told Reuters in an interview: “Fatalities that could have been avoided – we feel that CEOs must be held liable for those accidents, because they are responsible for the operations. As they show interest in how they grow the profits, they must also show interest in safety.”

Asked if this meant possible court action, she said: “These are some of the issues that we must look at. For me, the courts are the last option. But legislation provides for us to go to courts.”

The latest figures show that fatalities in the mining industry have dropped by three percent – from 127 in 2010 to 123 in 2011. This is a positive step, of course. But Shabangu did not fail to put it into perspective. “We remain gravely concerned about the continued loss of lives at the mines. Already this year, there have been 13 fatalities in the mining sector. The recent spates of fatalities are also a reflection of some CEOs’ refusal to make meaningful changes and take personal responsibility for health and safety issues. Some of them value profits more than the lives of the people.”

Furthermore, she said her department remained greatly concerned about the lack of improvement in compliance and fatalities in the major platinum mines. “The platinum sector alone contributes about 30% of all fatalities, which remains a serious concern. It is therefore to be expected that the Department will monitor these mines through intensified inspections and group audits,” she warned.

But why do these accidents continue to occur? Is it really a case of CEOs not caring? Or could there be other reasons too? JN van der Merwe, from the School of Mining Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes that experts argue about the reasons for our poor performance, citing aspects ranging from a low regard for human life in our society to the inherently dangerous nature of our gold mines, flavouring the arguments with a general reluctance by the industry to implement new technology. “Anyone with an axe to grind will find reason to attach an argument to the unacceptable fatality and injury rates of our mining industry,” he says.

But Van der Merwe hastens to add that our mines are at least safer than our roads. Writing in the Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, he notes that “the probability of losing one’s life in a car accident is more than 10 times as high as it is underground in a mine, based on the comparison of fatalities per million hours worked to the number of fatalities per million hours travelled.

“Even the murder rate per capita, at approximately 38 per 100 000 people per year, is higher than the mining industry fatality rate of around 26 per 100 000 workers per year,” he says.

However, Van der Merwe does note that this in no way softens mine accident performance. “One just feels that it would be so much better for all concerned if we paid the same attention to road safety (to mention but one dangerous activity in our society) as we do to mine safety,” he says.

An improvement in the mine industry’s safety record would not just make sense from a moral point of view; it would also make financial sense. As Van der Merwe puts it: “If one considers that the estimated cost associated with a fatal accident amounts to between R10 million and R20 million, then the total cost associated with fatalities is more than R2 billion per annum. Safety research under these conditions cannot but be a worthwhile investment.”

As far as I am concerned, any investment in safety isn’t just worthwhile. It is essential.

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