South African gold miners showcased a host of engineering measures last month at Sibanye Gold’s Driefontein mine, on the West Rand of Johannesburg, to “design out” the risk of mineworkers contracting silicosis.
The visit, hosted by a working group comprising seven current and historical gold miners in South Africa, included a 2 700 m journey underground at the mine’s Ya Rona shaft, a visit to the occupational health and safety centre and the health room at the Driefontein training centre, as well as to Sibanye’s Ikamva clinic.
Media and other stakeholders were informed during the visit that the working group aimed to reduce silicosis exposure to an industry milestone of 0.05 mg/m3 by 2024. This will be done by implementing a three-pronged strategy involving prevention schemes through effective engineering and deploying improved dust- management technologies, detection and treatment initiatives at mines, as well as appropriately compensating workers who do contract the disease.
The working group, which was established last year, includes African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti, DRDGold, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold and Sibanye Gold.
These companies have vowed to take action against the litigative threat of occupational lung disease, particularly that of silicosis, which has plagued South Africa’s gold mining indus- try for more than a century.
The engineering measures outlined during the visit included footwall chemical treatments sprayed from locomotives, water atomisers at the stope, winch covers and dual-filtration tip covers.
“The best controls in any situation is to eliminate the risk,” said Sibanye Gold environmental engineering head Vijay Nundlall. He highlighted that a significant amount of engineering was being done to limit mineworkers’ risk of contracting occupational diseases, such as silicosis, and that technological developments impacted on the effectiveness of dust measurements and the ability to reduce exposure levels.
“There is no cure for silicosis and the best way to manage the disease is to prevent [mineworkers from contracting] the disease by reducing [their] exposure,” Nundlall asserted.
Mineworkers at Sibanye are required to undergo regular health assessments to determine their fitness and capability of working underground. Sibanye Gold health and wellness VP Jameson Malemela explained that mineworkers’ vital signs were regularly monitored and the results recorded at occupational health and safety centres at the various mining operations.
He added that workers were required to undergo a screening process to assess whether intervention was required – a worker could be relocated to areas of the mine with lower dust- exposure risks – or treatment measures were needed if a mineworker’s vital signs had changed.
However, Malemela noted that diagnosing silicosis was extremely challenging and stated that about 40% of silicosis cases were only identified post mortem. He added that advances in screening technology had impacted on the efficiency of detecting occupational diseases and that Sibanye used the best screening technology available to ensure corrective actions could take place.
Nundlall also noted that mining houses engaged in silicosis training and awareness programmes, which outlined what the disease was, assessed the various exposure risk levels from different dust sources and the technologies that could be used to sample dust levels, as well as exposure prevention methods and safe work practices.
Meanwhile, the South Gauteng High Court is hearing an application by the lawyers of 59 mine- workers who have contracted silicosis or tuberculosis, who want to represent a wider class of workers affected by these diseases.