The deep-level mining sector in South Africa has “advanced significantly” from a health and safety perspective, says law firm ENSafrica mine and occupational health and safety executive Willem le Roux.
For example, Le Roux – the author of Mine Health and Safety Law (volumes one and two) – highlights the fatality rate reduction across all commodities per 1 000 persons employed, which has improved from 0.57% in 2004 and 0.17% in 2016 to just 0.05% in 2019.
This breakthrough comes mainly as a result of the country’s implementation of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA), which came into operation in 1997 and “changed things materially”, he enthuses.
Le Roux says other elements are the research that industry employers’ organisation the Minerals Council South Africa has been conducting since 1997, the efforts of trade unions to protect their members, standards imposed by United Nations agencies such as the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation – which the MHSA aligns with – as well as pressures exerted by shareholders of listed mining companies.
Although there was “some form of risk management” before the adoption of the Act, it was typically done on a case-by-case basis.
“Section 11 of the MHSA lays down all the principles relating to the specific hazards that employees must be aware of before entering the workplace,” Le Roux tells Mining Weekly.
Key to mine health and safety management systems is risk management, with employers being compelled to identify all the potential and existing hazards that may hinder the health and safety of employees while they are at work.
The employer must further assess the health and safety risks to which employees may be exposed in such a case.
“The MHSA also requires that remedial measures be taken as part of risk management. The priority is to eliminate any recorded risk. If the risk cannot be eliminated, then it must be controlled at source and measures must be taken to minimise it.”
Thereafter, if the risk remains, the employer must provide personal protective equipment and monitor the risk to which employees may be exposed.
Le Roux explains that it is the employer’s responsibility to train employees about the existing hazards and how to protect themselves against them.
The Act also states that the primary responsibility for the health and safety of employees falls on the employer. In the case of the MHSA, the employer is the entity which holds the right to mine or prospect.
It also defines the term ‘employee’ in Section 102 to mean any person who is employed at or working at a mine. It can, therefore, be widely defined to include contractors and other service providers at a mine, adds Le Roux.
Further, he explains that employers face more and different hazards when conducting deep-level mining, which range from heat, ventilation and ground conditions to seismicity.
He emphasises that “a lot of research on deep-level operations has been completed”, with ongoing research projects looking into seismicity. Notably, despite the unpredictability of seismic events, industry has, by gaining more knowledge, improved the development of support measures, should a seismic event occur.
Le Roux says mine health and safety management systems should provide for different strategies, based on the exact ground and environmental conditions of the mining area.
It is important to remember that, with all human activity, the risk of a hazard-related incident occurring cannot be avoided indefinitely, and employers are tasked, therefore, to take measures that are "reasonably practicable" to safeguard health and safety, he adds.
These measures must consider the severity and scope of the hazard or risk, the state of knowledge reasonably available concerning that hazard or risk in relation to any means of removing or mitigating it, the availability and suitability of means to remove or mitigate the hazard or risk, as well as the costs and the benefits of removing or mitigating that hazard or risk.
Le Roux tells Mining Weekly that reasonable practicability places huge pressure on employers to stay abreast of global developments.
While the risks associated with these operations are not insurmountable, he warns that mining companies must be alert, and their planning must be meticulously done to enable them to keep up with the changes and improvements within the sector.
It is essential to improve health and safety and to prevent occupational fatalities, injuries and diseases, Le Roux highlights. This, he concludes, will enable the sector to thrive and achieve zero harm for as long as possible.