Mine health and safety summit

18 October 2018

The mining industry has for many years been under the micro scope for human injustices caused by corporate exposure to hazardous environment.

Although there is a myopic argument pertaining to the freedom of choice to work in this sector, economic pressures detect little rationale choice due to limited occupational opportunities in the country.

For many years, mine work has reminisced slavery due to the Migrant Labour System which was subjected to various commissions leading to recommendation to transform mining housing to family units.

Mining infrastructure remains poor, representing fertile ground for communicable diseases in hostels, informal settlements and poor working conditions. It is important to review this situation with the understanding that it is the people’s lives that are at risk.

The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) has over the years chanted slogans pertaining to ‘zero harm’ and sought to create a narrative that changes the perspective of viewing mine work not as a death sentence.

However, in reality a total of seven fatalities were recorded in 2017, which was a 10% increase from the ones recorded the previous year. Fall of ground continues to be the biggest contributor of fatalities accounting 37% of the total fatalities in 2017.

This has continued in the Gold sector in 2018 with numerous disasters that have rattled the industry as a result of seismic activities leading to rock fall.

Besides mine fatalities the injuries remain high at 2245 in 2017, averaging six injuries per day in the industry.

Through the DMR analysis there is evidence that poor supervision contributed 10% towards these injuries. This is a serious issue considering the dire consequences attendant for workers in these circumstances.

What is disappointing further, is that the DMR does not provide an analysis of contributing factors to fatalities in a similar fashion to injuries. It would be interesting to note the extent to which management negligence contributes to mine fatalities as a hypothesis to be tested in statistical analysis.

The primary focus for any business is to make profit. This can happen under numerous circumstances, some of which may have grave consequences for workers.

The mining industry has high incidence of fatalities, injuries and diseases which makes it a hugely dangerous environment to work it. This is fuelled by poor salaries in the sector which makes it easier for employers to replace these workers with abundant cheap labour.

As such, mining companies are reluctant to invest in technology that will detect hazards and eliminate them because it is said this technology is too expensive.
Since it is cheaper to replace a worker, the companies would rather recycle this commodity than spend money in life saving equipment.

We are told that there is mining technology that can detect seismic activity before it actually happens, similar to one used to monitor earthquakes which could help with the evacuation of workers underground to avoid rock falls. However, this technology is said to be very expensive and most companies would rather work without one. This is serious negligence with no consequences.

There is a move in the DMR to combine the COIDA and ODIMWA with a view of streamlining health and safety legislation. However, AMCU has always been opposed to this process as mining health and safety requires a specific set of regulations which will be linked to the licensing of the company considering the level of incidence in this industry.

Capitalists have been championing the re-regulation of this sector due to the existence of civil liabilities in the ODIMWA for negligence of corporates as witnessed in the Gold silicosis law suit. However, COIDA focuses on compensation and does not prescribe individual liability to the business and its functionaries as it clearly states that OHS Committee members cannot be held individually liable for any health and safety matter.

AMCU remains opposed to this process as we wish to strengthen and not weaken legislation. Our view is to insert criminal prosecution procedures for people who are responsible for fatalities in the workplace.

In the Gold sector, at Sibanye-Stillwater, a supervisor forced workers to go underground even when they had told him of the unsafe conditions due to previous tremor. However, the overzealous supervisor forced the workers to go underground and five of them lost their lives.

In such situations, there needs to be consequence to management to ensure that this individual and the employer are jointly and severally liable for the death of these workers.

The health and safety situation in South Africa requires a bold State that will hold business accountable for their operations.

Campaigns without radical policies and legislations will not curtail the growing negligence that is abundant in the industry. Sterner legislation, which will consider criminal prosecution for homicidal management behaviour needs to be considered.

There is a need to also reconfigure our economy and prioritise investment in prevention than cure.

Preventative measures need to include investment in technology for health and safety prevention. Companies need to dedicate a percentage of their turnover for re-investment in Health and Safety interventions.