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Death in the name of profit: South Africa’s mine safety scourge

16th August 2010

By: In On Africa IOA

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In July 2010, a rockfall accident at the Marikana mine, a joint venture between Anglo Platinum and Aquarius Platinum, resulted in the death of six mineworkers. In the wake of the accident, the South African Government responded boldly, and the principal inspector of mines in the country's North West province, where Marikana is situated, issued a directive relating to all operations in the province using bord-and-pillar mining methods. The directive required that all such operations review their codes of practice and adopt revised standards and procedures in an effort to prevent rockfalls and rockbursts.(2) Analysts and affected companies criticised the Government's move, claiming that the impact of the directive on mine productivity and profitability would be "detrimental" to the chromite and platinum mines using bord-and-pillar methods. Further, concerns were raised over the broader economic implications of the move, including concerns over potential job losses. The market responded to these concerns, companies appealed against the directive, and Government softened its stance, advising that a subjective interpretation be applied to the directive. Thus, individual companies affected by the directive were afforded the opportunity to present flexible and appropriate safety solutions to the inspectorate of mines and, in the meantime, mining operations were allowed to continue as before.

 

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While the concerns of the mining companies and analysts may have been correct and, indeed, it seems likely that the directive would have had a significant impact on the affected mines and possibly on the economy more broadly, the incident serves to highlight several important characteristics of the mine-safety challenge that South Africa faces.

 

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Firstly, it must be noted that the accident which sparked this incident was just one of many fatal mining accidents that have already occurred in South Africa this year. While mining companies operating in the country have reported improved safety records in recent years, these improvements have been achieved off a dismal base and, in fact, safety performance continues to be a blight on the country's mining industry. Secondly, the incident draws attention to the important role that mining companies must play if this safety scourge is to be eradicated, and hints at possible unwillingness on the part of mining companies to embrace all possible options to improve safety-related performance. Finally, the incident highlights that Government is struggling to improve adherence to safety standards and, in fact, may even be struggling to establish those standards in the first place.


South Africa's mine-safety record

 

In 2009, some 165 people lost their lives in mining accidents in South Africa. This marked an improvement on the 171 people who died in the country's mines in 2008, and the 220 fatalities recorded in 2007, and a represents a significant improvement on the 309 people who lost their lives in the country's mines in 1999. Further, in the first six-and-a-half months of 2010, some 67 people died, indicating the likelihood that the full year figure would be an improvement over 2009.(3) However, this level of fatalities represents very poor performance when compared to safety benchmarked countries, such as Australia, Canada and the US.

 

For example, the US reported 26 fatal accidents at its mines in 2007, and 23 in 2008, according to the US Mine Safety and Health Administration. Australia had four mine deaths in 2007/8, 13 in 2006/7 and 11 in 2005/6, according to the Mineral Council of Australia. Meanwhile, Canada had eight mining fatalities in 2008 and six the previous year.(4)

 

At a summit in 2003, the Government, organised labour and South Africa's Chamber of Mines agreed that the local mining industry's safety record should reflect the international benchmark of one death for every 33-million hours worked by 2013. Last year, South Africa reported one death for close on seven-million hours worked, meaning that an 80% improvement will be required over four years if the target is to be achieved. However, as long as companies continue to use the same practices that they have been employing for decades, this seems an unlikely goal.

 

The need for companies to embrace safety as a benchmark of performance

 

Mining companies operating in South Africa have paid frequent lip-service to the need to enhance their safety-related performance. One need only read the annual reports of the country's various gold miners, for example, to see that, at least in principle, these operators are committed to ensuring greater safety for those in their employ. While it is important that a culture of safety starts with top executives, it questionable as to how far the written and spoken commitments of these executives translate into concrete action.

 

Furthermore, even in instances where efforts are made to improve safety, many of them seem reactive rather than proactive. For example, in the aftermath of the accident that precipitated the scenario outlined at the start of this article, Aquarius Platinum formed a technical working group to find a safer working environment, and invited other mining companies affected by the directive to participate in the process.(4) While this action is perhaps commendable, its utility would have been far greater had it taken place prior to the accident that cost six families the life of a loved one.

 

One of the often cited reasons for poor safety performance in South Africa is the fact that many of the country's mines, in particular gold and platinum mines, are operating at extreme depths where safety-related risks are higher. While this is true, companies cannot be absolved of the responsibility to find safe methods to operate in such conditions. In fact, companies mining in deep-level environments should be committing vast funds to the development of technologies that will improve safety performance in such scenarios.

 

Further, if companies wish to really demonstrate a commitment to safety-related performance, they should be ensuring adherence to basic safety standards. However, evidence shows that this is not the case. For example, a Presidential mine health and safety audit conducted in 2008, showed that only 66% of participants in the investigation were meeting the basic legal safety requirements.(5) This finding points to a lack of commitment of will and resources, on the part of the companies, to achieving safety standards, as well as shortcomings in the policing of such standards.

 

Government's challenges

 

Indications are that the Government's capacity to ensure adherence to health and safety requirements is fairly limited. For example, the mine inspectorate structure within the Department of Mineral Resources provides for 319 positions. However, as of early 2010, only 220 of these positions were filled.(6) The chief inspector of mines has previously indicated that this is inadequate.

 

Further, there are indications that both the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Justice struggle to secure court rulings relating to mine health and safety. In the past eight years, only one company has been found to be negligent, but no prosecution of the company or its officials followed from that judgement.(7) Added to this are delays in bringing cases to justice weaken the state's capacity to respond to safety-related incidents. For example, a case relating to an accident that took place at Gold Fields' Beatrix mine in 2000 was only brought to court by the National Prosecuting Authority in 2009, and was then settled with a plea bargain.(8)

 

Nevertheless, the Government has been clear in stating its commitment to mine safety, with Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, having previously said that "those who cannot mine safely must not mine at all."(9)

 

Legislation, in the form of the Mine Health & Safety Amendment Act of 2008, signed into law in 2009, has been developed to improve mine safety performance. The legislation included instruments to ensure that chief executives, mine managers, agents and senior employees could be held criminally liable for accidents if they were found to have been negligent. However, these aspects of the legislation were suspended, ostensibly to resolve concerns about constitutionality and to ensure the drafting of appropriate administrative guidelines and regulations. It is believed that this suspension was a result of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

 

The circumstances that unfolded following the recent Marikana accident certainly point to the fact that government is willing to listen to the concerns of industry. This willingness to engage has merit and, indeed, makes for a more investor-friendly climate than would otherwise be the case. There is, however, perhaps a point at which the Government needs to unequivocally indicate that injuries and fatalities sustained during the course of business will not be tolerated.

 

Conclusion

 

While there is a need for a greater level of commitment on the part of mining companies to achieving improved mine safety standards, common sense dictates that it will be difficult to elicit such a commitment from entities that are, by their very nature, profit driven, particularly since a commitment to safety has a direct financial impact. As a result, this commitment is one that will need to be extracted forcefully. Currently, the Government's tools to extract such a commitment are fairly weak and, thus, the best chance of improving mine safety in South Africa may lie in the strengthening of Government's arsenal. In particular, mines need to start feeling the profit pinch that results from enforced shutdowns after fatal accidents. Further, the capacity of the safety inspectorate needs to be strengthened to ensure that laws are properly implemented, and the capacity of the Department of Justice needs to be strengthened to ensure prosecutions and convictions.


Written by: Shona Kohler (1)


NOTES:

(1) Contact Shona Kohler through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (eyesonafrica@consultancyafrica.com)
(2) The directive required that all mines using mechanised bord-and-pillar methods reduce bord widths in their shafts from 10 m to 6 m. Further, the directive stated that extraction rations should be limited to 75%, prominent geological features should be supported by pillars, boxing of roadways must be towards one direction, and that the orientation of leads and lags between headings, must almost be aligned for effective ventilation.
(3) Figures from the South African Chamber of Mines, reported widely in the media.
(4) Figures cited by Khuzwayo W, ‘Fatalities at mines drop as safety is prioritised', Business Report, 11 July 2010.
(5) Prinsloo L, ‘Aquarius appeals against new South African mine safety directive', Mining Weekly, 19 July 2010.
(6) South African Department of Minerals and Energy, ‘Presidential mine health and safety audit', February 2009.
(7) National Treasury, ‘Department of Mineral Resources: Budget Vote', 2010.
(8) The case related to the death of nine mineworkers at a Northam Platinum mine, in Limpopo, in 2004, after they breathed noxious gases produced by an underground fire. In July 2006, a magistrate ruled that Northam's negligence had contributed to the deaths. However, no prosecution resulted.
(9) Mabanga T, ‘Safety under spotlight', Business Day, 27 November 2009.
(10) Minister of Minerals and Energy, Susan Shabangu, as quoted by Government news agency BuaNews.


 

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