The stupid element of mining

The stupid element of mining

One hears a lot about mining accidents caused by faulty structures or hazardous chemicals, but one rarely hears about accidents caused by miners themselves. ANLERIE DE WET talks to three South African miners who witnessed their colleagues neglect safety protocols − and lived to tell the tale

To protect the identity of the miners and to avoid causing unnecessary harm to any mine, pseudonyms have been used to tell the miners’ stories.

Dave is a final-year mining engineering student, who has worked in various mines across the country during his studies. He says he has seen a couple of people do some crazy things underground, but nothing compares to what he witnessed a colleague doing with a pic.

“While walking in the mine, I saw this guy using his pic to try and open a box of explosives. I shouted at him to stop what he was doing and asked him if he was trying to kill us. I think he only realised how dangerous his action was after I stopped him,” says Dave. If Dave hadn’t stopped his colleague, there could certainly have been fatalities.

He says another example of reckless behaviour was when someone used a mono winch to move explosives. A mono winch is used to move specific materials up and down a travelway to get them to another level. Generally, the platform holding the materials being hauled bumps against the walls of the travelway. “Just one bump could have caused an explosion,” says Dave.  

Andrew is a section manager at a mine in the Free State. He says: “Being in a mine makes you tired, but I don’t think that’s an excuse to be stupid.

“Not too long ago, one of the workers in my section started drilling underneath an overhanging rock. He was not authorised to drill there. He was wearing earmuffs, so he didn’t hear me when I started yelling for him to stop and move away. I had to run to him and physically pull him away. His drilling could have caused the rock to fall down at any moment, and it would have squashed him into a pancake.”

Jacob says he knows of many things that his colleagues have done that would get them fired for not complying with safety protocols.

“The other day I was with my charge hand and foreman at a link on top of a 22 kV overhead line. We had to isolate the line to allow others to work on it. My colleague called the millwright and asked him to let us know when he had isolated the mini substation, so that my colleague could pull the link to isolate the line in order to prevent it from burning,” says Jacob.

“The millwright called 20 minutes later to say everything had been isolated. My colleague is a 58-year-old man, who is 1,6-m tall and weighs 160 kg, but after pulling that link he leopard crawled away as though he was in the army! All the grass within a one-kilometre radius was burnt.”

Every year, thousands of miners from around the world die as a result of mining accidents, both underground and on the surface. In 2015, 77 miners died in South Africa alone. This number could have been noticeably higher if some of these stories had taken a turn for the worse. Of course there has been a vast improvement compared to the 615 deaths recorded in 1994.

As these men look back at these near-death experiences, they all reiterate the need to follow all the safety procedures. Sometimes, however, the human element slips in and undermines the best safety procedures. “These kind of stupid things don’t happen every day, but you just need one person, who doesn’t think straight for one second, to bring the house down,” says Andrew.

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