The South African mining industry is, generally, well prepared to deal with the return to work of a large percentage of staff as lockdown Alert Levels move from Level 4 to Level 3 on June 1, reports Minerals Council South Africa.
The council noted in its second weekly Covid-19 update briefing on May 29 that, historically, it has sound medical quarantining, screening, testing and treating infrastructure which has been used to combat tuberculosis (TB), and HIV and Aids, which have been legacy, prevalent issues within the industry.
Head of health Thuthula Balfour, points out that, for example, in tackling TB in the industry, council members' operations had medical facilities available to screen, test and contact-trace suspected cases with great success.
These measures have helped miners in their ability to screen 100% of their respective workforces, every day of work.
Through these efforts to combat TB, she points out that, over time, the mining industry has been able to reduce the total number of TB cases to lower than that of the entire national case count.
“Through the experience we have in managing TB, HIV and Aids we have managed to develop great infrastructure to manage diseases like Covid-19,” she stresses.
In 2019, more than 90% of miners were tested, on a voluntary basis, for TB.
This results in a robust framework that can be adapted and used to test miners for Covid-19, going forward, the council states.
In terms of personal protective equipment (PPE), Anglo American external communications manager Sibusiso Tshabala notes that the mining industry has, incidentally, good practises in place to prevent the spread of diseases in the working environment as it is mandatory for, especially underground, workers to wear various items of PPE, including gloves, masks and goggles or safety glasses.
In any case, the mining industry has also introduced a number of sanitisation measures to enhance its hygiene practises, including sanitising hands, both before miners go underground, as well as once they reach operating levels underground. There are also many instances of miner’s having installed disinfectant spray booths to disinfect personnel when they enter mine sites.
SETTING THE BENCHMARK
Minerals Council South Africa CEO Roger Baxter says Covid-19 is a “black swan event”, having no precedents or benchmarks on which to base responses.
He notes, however, that mining was one of the first industries in South Africa to recognise the disruptive impact that Covid-19 might have, even before it began to spread rampantly in the country.
“In February Minerals Council South Africa sent out, in four different languages, guidelines to [council] members on how to manage pandemics like Covid-19.”
In addition, Baxter highlights that the council has also consistently done a lot of work around a set of control measures based on risk, prevention and mitigation, thereby formulating a set of standard operating procedures, which will be sent to members to help guide them in their fight against Covid-19.
“These were undertaken in a 10-point plan in March, and [were expanded upon in] a much more detailed set of standard operating procedures for the industry during the course of April.”
Effectively, he says, these standard operating procedures were adopted by all parties and are reflected in the directives issued by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.
Meanwhile, he also warns that a significant increase in the number of infections of Covid-19 in the domestic mining industry is inevitable, in line with increases that will happen in other industries. However, he also notes that not all these cases will be a direct result of miners returning to work, but will also include cases originating from within communities.
“As we increase testing, the reality is that South Africa will experience a significant increase in the number of infections,” says Baxter.
He nonetheless assures that the mining industry's Covid-19 screening and testing systems are well entrenched and although not 100% “perfect” are providing satisfactory results, which will improve as national testing capacity is also ramped up.
Baxter also points out that the council convenes a fortnightly zero harm leadership team meeting where different mining companies discuss their measures for addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby sharing lessons and successes.