As almost all of South Africa’s gold mines are underground operations, the lockdown essentially brought this sector to a halt for some time, says independent consulting firm of engineers and scientists SRK Consulting.
The lifting of restrictions has been marked by disruptions – and some stoppages – that are making it difficult for gold mining to build momentum, says SRK director and principal consultant Andrew van Zyl.
Steady-state production is clearly much more efficient than intermittent activity – resulting from mines’ response to infections being detected and addressed – which will inevitably characterise production in the short term, he adds.
“The industry is in a complicated adjustment period, which includes interactions with unions and mine communities to address the outbreaks and decide on responses. This is usually time-consuming and will hamper efforts to return to pre-lockdown productivity levels.
“The likelihood is that workers who are returning to mines have contracted the virus in their home environments during the shutdown. Many cases detected in miners have been asymptomatic and will not have been detected before,” Van Zyl tells Mining Weekly.
Notably, underground gold operations involve significant numbers of people working in many different sections of the mine, says SRK partner and principal mining engineer Marcin Wertz.
As such, infection outbreaks mean that labour will need to be reorganised on an ad hoc basis, which is very disruptive to production.
“Leveraging their established medical testing systems for infectious diseases, gold mines have been able to quickly detect infections in returning workers. Without the symptoms to warrant government testing, many infected people will return to the mines, undiagnosed – hence the relatively high numbers being reported by gold mines during the ramp-up phase.”
Wertz highlights that random outbreaks will certainly affect productivity underground and in process plants, where work teams will have to be adjusted and the relevant expertise found to fill the gaps created by people in self-isolation.
Meanwhile, as gold mines have conducted regular testing for respiratory and other illnesses for decades, they will apply similar regimens for Covid-19 testing, says Van Zyl.
This, he believes, will allow for the timeous identification of infections and, as such, the number of infections could initially be higher than that observed in the general public, where testing is not as rigorous relative to the total population.
“On the upside, it is foreseeable that the infection rate will become less of an issue at gold mines over the next couple of months, with employees largely being kept in separate groups while working underground. Further, with regular cleaning and sanitisation, there will gradually be more confidence that infections will not spread within the workplace,” he suggests.
“While the infections may have spread at a community funeral or church service, the mine could be the place where the infections are first detected.”
He warns that such a community perception could be a serious risk to a mine’s social licence, and requires careful engagement with stakeholders to show that the mine is acting responsibly.