The year of “zero harm”

So the year of “zero harm” is upon us and the miners are rejoicing. Or are they?.

Let’s think back 10 years – to 2003. It was the year that Finding Nemo hit the big screen while American and British forces hit Iraq. There was lots happening in outer space – some good, some bad. The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated while Europe launched its first voyage to another planet, namely Mars. Speaking of Mars, it made its closest approach to earth in nearly 60 000 years – passing 55 758 005 km away.

Also in 2003, the People’s Republic of China began filling the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam, Concorde made its last-ever flight and Saddam Hussein was captured. The last “old style” Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Mexico.

And, in South Africa, representatives of the South African mining industry – employers, labour unions and government – met and thrashed out a way to stop deaths on the mines. (At the time, the Department of Mineral Resources said that more than 54 000 miners had died in South Africa since 1904.) They came up with an ambitious plan – a target of “zero harm” for all employees by 2013. In terms of this plan, the CEOs of more than 30 companies determined that 2013 would be the year in which South Africa’s mine safety would be on a par with the mine safety in industrialised countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. But exactly how many miners die in those countries each year? Not many.

According to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions, there are no reliable global statistics for deaths in one of the world’s most dangerous jobs – but it estimates there are 12 000 fatalities per year.

While safety has improved in China and India, these countries are two of the largest contributors to these figures. According to official Chinese data, 1 384 workers died in coal mine accidents in 2012, sharply down from 1 973 people in 2011 and a shocking 7 000 deaths recorded a decade ago. In India, the total number of accidents across coal, metal and oil mines has more than halved in the last seven years, falling from 1 358 in 2005 to just 591 in 2012. And what about those industrialised countries? Australia reported four fatalities in 2007/08, while the United States had 23 deaths. Canada had eight mining fatalities in 2008.

And, now that we have reached the year of “zero harm” here in South Africa, how is our report card looking? As at the end of July 2013, a total of 54 miners had died in South Africa (1 653 were injured). That’s a huge improvement over 2003, when 270 miners died. But it is clear that we are nowhere near achieving our goal of “zero harm”.

Much, much more needs to be done. After all, even one death is one too many.

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