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Mine safety becomes major political issue in South Africa after latest fatal incidents

20 July 2018

South Africa will tighten its mine safety regulations to hold mine operators accountable for deaths in the industry, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on July 16. Safety is a huge issue in South Africa’s mining sector and recent incidents have brought the matter to the top of the government’s list of concerns. 

Palabora copper mine, South Africa - Image: PMC
Palabora copper mine, South Africa - Image: PMC

Ramaphosa was responding  to a question in a TV interview about six miners who died on July 15 in an underground fire at a copper mine operated by Palabora Mining. Initial reports indicated that the fire at started at one of the mine’s underground conveyor belts.

“We are going to tighten up the regulations to ensure that those who run these mines must be accountable themselves because we cannot have so many deaths,” said Ramaphosa, who was a mine union activist during the apartheid years.

Ramaphosa said 54 miners had been killed in South Africa’s mines so far in 2018. This follows a spike in mine deaths in 2017, to more than 80 from 73 in the previous year, ending nine straight years of falling fatalities.

Worst affected has been the Sibanye Stillwater gold and platinum mining group, which had seven miners die in May as a result of a seismic event at the company’s Driefontein mine, and another five killed in a gassing incident at its Kloof mine in June.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) said the total number of deaths in Sibanye-Stillwater so far in 2018 was 19. Over the past 18 months, the union said a total of 134 mineworkers have been killed in South African mining operations.

The Solidarity trade union said provisional data indicated that 86 miners died in South African mines in 2017, compared to 73 in 2016, 77 in 2015 and 84 in 2014. It said that preliminary figures for 2018 showed the 2017 total could well be exceeded this year if first half fatality trends continue into the second half.

According to the Minerals Council of South Africa, formerly the Chamber of Mines, between 1993 and 2016 the fatality rate fell by 88%. This was largely as a result of the concerted efforts by companies, the regulator, and labour.

“The Minerals Council is very disappointed at and very concerned about the rising fatality trend after more than 20 years of almost uninterrupted improvements. The current situation is unsatisfactory. The Minerals Council is intensifying its work with members to address both the spate of recent accidents, and the need to eliminate all accidents and incidents at work,” spokesperson, Charmaine Russell said.

The AMCU wants the legal statute that gives miners the right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions to be strengthened. All too often, it says, miners are threatened with dismissal if they refuse to work in a situation they consider unsafe.

The Minerals Council conceded that there is no single solution to the scourge of mine deaths.

The most serious fatality incidents in 2018 varied in nature from falls of ground following a seismic event, employees entering areas that should be off limits, and underground fire. The council said each of these incidents needs to be thoroughly investigated.

The council said falls of ground due to seismic events were on the increase, and that addressing this, especially in deep-level mines, required a joint effort.

According to the Minerals Council, the Mine Health and Safety Council had invested Rand 250 million ($18.6 million) in falls of ground research over the past several years, as well as R15 million on research into seismicity associated with deep-level mines. In addition, R40 million had been spent on fundamental and applied research and technology transfer.

South African miners are having to go deeper in ageing shafts to access additional ore in a country that has been mined commercially for over a century.

Most miners are killed in gold and platinum mines, which can be more than four kilometres deep. At those depths, the extreme pressure means mine galleries are particularly prone to seismic activity and rock-bursts.

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