The Covid-19 pandemic and its impact in terms of health and safety regulations has significantly affected the use of two underground mine shafts at local platinum miner Wesizwe’s Bakubung platinum mine, in the North West province of South Africa, as well as the development of the mine project.
The underground mine’s twin vertical shaft system includes a main shaft and a ventilation shaft, which also functions as a second escape route.
The main shaft has a hoisting capacity of 250 000 t of ore and 15 000 t of waste a month. Both shafts were originally designed for hoisting three-million tonnes a year of mined material.
Wesizwe concluded the sinking of both shafts in 2017 after which both were equipped and the shaft system was commissioned, commencing capital footprint development in 2018.
However, Wesizwe mining GM Jacob Mothomogolo explains that, since these shafts were commissioned, with the occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company has had to comply with the disaster management and all health and safety regulations. The mine implemented a range of measures when transporting mineworkers up and down the shafts.
Owing to safety measures that had to be implemented, the company could not transport personnel in the main shaft at full capacity in line with the original design of the shafts.
“The impact of Covid means that we’ve had to, for social distancing purposes, re-arrange our allocated times for transporting mineworkers underground and returning them to surface. Our main carriage for mining material is a single carriage designed for 160 people. Because of the lockdown and social distancing requirements, we’ve reduced that capacity and transport to only 30 people at a time.”
He stresses that introducing more trips to move more mineworkers up and down the mine shafts would also require increased power consumption, particularly as the equipment used on the shafts, such as the winders, is a significant power consumer.
The mine’s operating at less than full capacity during the lockdown also meant further cost burdens to the company as fixed costs for care and maintenance were incurred, Mothomogolo emphasises.
“The additional cost of Covid-19 management is significant, and we’ve put a budget aside specifically for that in the 2021 allocation to deal with the Covid management requirements. The realisation, however, that Covid-19 is likely to stay means that we’re preparing to create additional resources for spare capacity to cater for absenteeism, especially for production teams.”
Mothomogolo notes that, if a mineworker is suspected of being infected with Covid-19, health and safety regulations require that the worker be quarantined and isolated for up to ten days.
This presents quite a challenge, particularly when operators and other core skill personnel are not available in a shift; we basically lose production for that crew on the day, he highlights. Consequently, Wesizwe is now looking to recruit and create rotating crews to manage this risk.
Mothomogolo reiterates that, in addition to readjusting shaft shifts and crews because of Covid-19, the pace of production in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 has been significantly affected.
“At the end of 2019, we had planned to develop the mine to 7 100 m in 2020. Owing to the pandemic, lockdown and stoppages; however, we then revised the plan to developing the mine to 3 654 m. I can comfortably say that we managed to achieve that revised plan last year.”
Further, the company conducted a mass testing of its workforce at the beginning of this year and out of 1 540 people tested, only 185 tests were positive.
This mainly included underground and core skilled personnel, who were quarantined and which resulted in a loss of production in January and February. The company has only been operating at full capacity since last month.
Currently, Wesizwe has a 192 000 t stockpile of ore on the surface, at 2.45 g/t, the equivalent of 15 000 oz.
The company aims to complete the commissioning of the mine operation, including a one-million-tonne-a-year concentrator plant, in October this year. Mothomogolo says the operation will reach steady-state production of one-million tonnes a year in February next year and will be scaled up to three-million tonnes a year in 2027.
“With the current commodity and metal prices, we are looking at opportunities to switch back to the original base plan of three-million tonnes a year. “The majority of the design work and infrastructure currently installed is meant to support or can be easily scaled up to support the original three-million-tonne-a-year production plan and, therefore, we can simply go back and switch and start producing more ounces if the current market upswing continues, which is most likely,” he concludes.