Otherwise known as The People’s Republic of South Africa, this resource-rich region is home to the deepest mines in the entire world.
This 4.8 million (UN 2008) people strong country is a leading source of diamonds, gold, PGM, vanadium, coal, and precious metals such as platinum. But these resources are blighted by a tumultuous mining health and safety record.
“The number of deaths due to mining incidents for the period of June 1, 2008 to June 1, 2009 were 142 deaths of miners lawfully employed (and) 135 deaths of illegal miners” South Africa’s Mines Minister Susan Shabangu said in a written reply to government on July 2nd.
This total has been viewed as disappointing despite reports that the total of legal mining deaths is down 24 per cent from its’ total of 221 for the year 2007.
In the weeks leading up to June 11th this year, the Harmony Gold-owned disused Eland Shaft Mine in The Central Free State Province took a tough hit. In total 76 bodies of illegal miners were recovered after an underground fire broke out. The death toll climbed following days of rising fatalities, visits from the Department of Minerals and energy, pleas from trade union Solidarity and The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and worldwide headlines of horror.
While this tragedy opened eyes all over the world to the dangers of illegal mining, it also raised wider concerns over the mining health and safety standards for the South Africa within more legal realms too.
Today the IRJ takes a closer look at South African mining health and safety and some of the diverse current concerns sweeping the region.
Mining health and safety legislation in South Africa
Mining health and safety in South Africa is governed by Act 29 of the 1996 Mine Health and Safety Act. The base premise of the act is:
• To ensure owner responsibility for health and safety through creation of codes of practise, training, identifying potentially hazardous factors, investigating said factors, employing hygienists for the industry, and founding methods of medical attention and recording for the site.
• To safeguard the rights of employees to refuse or move away from areas which are unsafe or potentially unsafe.
• To create the Inspectorate of Mining Health and Safety.
• To establish the three-party Mine Health and Safety Council.
Following amendments in 1997, the original 1996 act now also includes:
• Provision of a monetary fining system in support of tripartite institution regulation and to provide health and safety-appointed employees in the case of any inquiry.
• The constitution of the Mine Health and Safety Council concerning matters of procedure within said council.
• Amendment concerning the election and appointment of health and safety employees, and establishing the authority of health and safety inspectors.
The Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate of South Africa are very clear about the ways in which they aim to push legislation and national mining standards to reduce mining deaths and occupational injuries. They also emphasise the importance of support and training in this. Their goals are:
• Providing policy inputs for the establishment and application of mine safety standards at mining operations, and promote their application;
• Providing policy inputs for the establishment and application of mine equipment safety standards at mining operations, and promote their application;
• Providing policy inputs for the establishment and application of mine health standards at mining operations, and promote their application; and
• Ensuring an effective support and inspection service.
Current concerns – the spread of disease
A paramount concern within the South African mining industry is the rising infection of Tuberculosis and other diseases. Continual exposure to silica dust in mine shafts has resulted in a high prevalence of silicosis. Similarly, continued cramped, hot and poorly ventilated working conditions coupled with the spread of HIV infection has also exacerbated tuberculosis infection. Asthma is also a similar concern.
The South African government has estimated that the T.B.. infection rates in their mines are amongst the highest in the world. T.B. and Malaria are already a problem within the communities in which the mines are situated, and as a result mining environments can provide breeding grounds for an already rooted problem.
The mining industry within these regions can also attract mass-migration as people desperate for work seek to gain employment within the mines. This leads to further cramped, sub-standard living conditions and again coaxes the potential spread of these diseases.
As the number of men working in a mining area grows, so does the number of commercial sex workers, and with that the threat of HIV and AIDs.
In 2004 The Aurum Institute for Health Research received grants of $14 million for over a five year period from the international Consortium to Respond Effectively to the AIDS/T.B. Epidemic (CREATE) and the Mine Health and Safety Council for a new research programme into the rising incidences of pulmonary tuberculosis in the gold mining industry . This was in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Tuberculosis Research.
This was the Prevent T.B. or ‘Thibela T.B.’ project. The standard programme in operation was compared to the community-wide use of T.B. treatment drug Isoniazid over a nine month period.
The study aimed to show that the community-wide drug therapy successfully combats the rising rate of infection.
In November 2006 The South Africa Department of Health published The Tuberculosis Strategic Plan for South Africa 2007 to 2011. The plan contained various recommendations and strategies aimed at tackling the rising rate of infection within the mining sector.
The rate of incidences has continued to increase despite preventative measures meeting the international standards and World Health Organisation (W.H.O) targets for detection and cure of the disease. According to the W.H.O Global TB Report of 2008, the country had almost 453,929 new TB cases in 2006, with an incidence rate of approximately 940 cases per 100,000 population. This increase was a big leap from 338 per 100,000 population in 1998.
In August 2008 the International Council on Mining and Minerals published The Good practise Guide of HIV/AIDS, T.B. and Malaria.
“The Guidance stresses the need for an integrated approach to the three diseases, and highlights the new links between them emerging in recent research. It also highlights the need for collaboration between mining and metals companies, communities, and local and international institutions and organizations” ICMM say in their August 27th news release.
“The Guidance strongly recommends an integrated, community-based approach to health care and disease management, and it provides valuable insights into improving the effectiveness of implementation – and the sustainability of results – through working with external partners including funders, contractors, service providers and suppliers.”
The Department of Minerals and Energy Tuberculosis Control Programmes (originally of 2003) recommendations include the external review of T.B. control activities every five years, inclusion of autopsy findings within annual programme reviews, and review of policy suitability, staff training and education practises, and manners of community liaisons.
In April 2009 The AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) began their campaign to address the issue of T.B. in gold miners at the Fourth South African AIDS Conference.
Current concerns – Acid Mine Drainage (A.M.D)
One hundred years of mining has of course impacted upon the subterranean environmental structure of South Africa. You’re mining for gold in the region, the groundwater has to go somewhere, so you set about pumping it out of the mine site. But in doing so this muck and mire mix of water and natural heavy metals has to be brought out above ground.
When it’s time to finish operations and this slurry can re-enter the mine, it reacts with exposed pyrite and creates sulphite, which then reacts with the water and you have sulphuric acid, which dissolves those heavy metals while the water rises back up above ground.
That’s Acid Mine Drainage. A recognised problem in various spots around the globe, yes, but in South Africa, the “single most significant threat to SA’s environment” according to Mining Weekly on May 8th 2009.
“We’ve got 12 hours of pumping left. We won’t survive the weekend” Graham Chamberlain, General Manager of East Rand Operations at Pamodzi Gold told Mining Weekly on Tuesday April 28th this year.
Pamodzi Rand were faced with a truly impossible decision; allow the A.M.D to flood the mine and cause potentially cataclysmic results to their East basin operation, or break waste treatment laws and pump the untreated A.M.D. up to the surface.
The company narrowly escaped this desperate choice when a first quarter subsidy of 7.5 million was announced and Rand saved the day.
Johannesburg is flooded with 300 million litres of A.M.D. every day. But this is not a new issue either.
In 2002, A.M.D. surfaced in the West Rand Mining Basin right above the Krudersdorp Game Reserve, and Harmony Gold built emergency dams to direct it into Robinson Lake to be treated.
A subsequent report by the Water Resources Commission in 2006 found that Robinson Lake had especially high uranium concentration resultant of the A.M.D. water diverted there.
In 2008 the National Nuclear Regulator (N.N.R) established a Regulatory Steering Committee.
‘These slime dams and rock dumps are potentially significant contributors to diffuse contamination’ it stated.
Shortly after the committee was established, Harmony Gold had to put up signs around the river, warning locals that cattle should no longer enter or drink from it.
Here stems the view that A.M.D. is one of the greatest health and safety challenges of today. Not only does it present hazardous environmental and occupational potential, but it continues to be a problem long after the mine life is up. It is costly to combat, lasting in damage, and desperately in need of a solution.
A case breaks
In early 2009 a story involving workers at The Dominion Reefs Uranium Mine in South Africa hit our headlines. The Canadian company who own and operate the mine, Uranium One, was told to ‘Respect Human Rights in South Africa!’ after employees complained of tuberculosis, silicosis, cancer and asthma due to poor health and safety practices at the mine site. Other reports made include toxic water-fills on the mine site, a lack of protective equipment, rock-fall dangers, and an overall lack of employee understanding about health and safety practices.
When the workers went on strike to petition for improved conditions many were fired en masse receiving no notification period or severance in the process. A case was filed against the company with The South African Commission Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. On January 23rd the hearing on this case took place and the Commission granted an arbitration award in favour of these workers.
The Confederation of South African National Congress (COSATU) reported that at least 18 workers have died of occupational causes since 2004. In 2007 the company was ordered by government inspectors to cease its’ mining operations at the site until legal requirements for health and safety precautions were satisfied.
A brighter future
Today there is a lot of talk about nationalizing South Africa’s mines. Both the African National Congress youth league and COSTAU have called for this to take place. On July 6th Bloomberg reported that ‘South Africa’s ruling African National Congress said it was open to discussing demands by its labor union allies to consider nationalizing the country’s mines’.
Proponents seek to share the vast wealth of the industry with this move, to safeguard jobs after the mines ministry reports that 25,000 have been lost during the recession, and the improvement of health and safety standards across the board has been suggested within the move to.
This year the Department of Mining expressed a wish to see a 20 per cent year-on-year improvement in South African mining health and safety standards between now and 2013.
At the EXXARO Resources First CEO Safety summit on March 17th this year, the speech made by Mzolisi Diliza, Chief Executive of the Chamber of Mines says: “Many companies achieved record safety performances in 2008. The 24 per cent reduction in fatalities and 28 per cent reduction in fatality rates are the biggest improvements in safety performance during the last decade and they demonstrate the advances that can be accomplished. It is the leading practices from these companies that we wish to adopt elsewhere.”
It is a changeable time for the future of mining health and safety in South Africa, but legislation, communications and community education and involvement is being both established and grown all the time.
It is not a straight road ahead. Unemployment, political unrest, public opinion/cooperation and other factors still come in to play. But the initiative for change is stronger than ever and government, union, public and company groups are all trying to tackle the issue.
By 2013 the face of South African mining health and safety may look entirely different. The change has definitely already begun.