A regression in the health and safety performance of South Africa’s mining industry and the impact of “Covid-19 fatigue" were noteworthy topics of discussion at the yearly National Day of Health and Safety 2021, hosted by the Minerals Council South Africa on July 8.
This year’s event was centred on the theme “Renewed Focus for our New Normal”, which recognised the integration of health, safety and wellbeing, acknowledging the regression in fatalities in 2020 compared with 2019, the impacts of Covid-19 and the consequent behavioural changes that are needed.
To date this year, the industry has reported 32 fatalities, Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) chief inspector of mines David Msiza reported, noting that this was a regression in safety performance, considering that there were 60 fatalities in the whole of 2020 and only 51 in 2019.
Of particular concern was a surge in deaths (four cases) categorised as “miscellaneous” – a category of fatality in which the victim’s death could not be appropriately determined.
In this regard, he said, the DMRE was requesting the sector to continuously and timeously assist the department in investigating such cases, to ensure causes are determined, following which action can be taken to deal with the causes that led to those fatalities.
Of equal concern was a rise in mining-related injuries, he said. These had increased by 57% to date this year, with Msiza saying a contributing factor may be in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated fatigue of having to deal with a new working environment.
To address this situation, he said the DMRE had been engaging with mining CEOs and the Minerals Council’s board to reflect on the dynamics and challenges being faced, as well as finding ways to work together to find a balance between addressing the pandemic and implementing occupational health and safety measures.
Meanwhile, Msiza also noted that he was pleased at the reduction in occupational diseases, but he expressed concern that the incidence of noise-induced hearing loss and occupational lung disease were still a concern.
THE NEW NORMAL
Minerals Council CEO Roger Baxter said the way forward for the mining industry, and as a country, was to achieve community immunity through vaccination.
He enthused that, just last week in the US, 99% of new Covid-19 cases were of people that had not been vaccinated, thereby illustrating the efficacy of vaccinations in slowing the spread of the virus.
In terms of vaccines and the mining industry, Baxter pointed out that, to date, 58 mining occupational health sites had applied to register as primary vaccination administration sites, while a number of other sites would operate as secondary sites.
To date, six sites had already started administering vaccines, with another eight scheduled to start shortly.
“We are working closely with the Department of Health to expedite the registration process in terms of finding [mining health] sites as soon as possible. We are currently seconding some staff members into a process to accelerate the registration of these sites,” he said.
“Our goal is to ensure that all employees are able to be vaccinated as soon as national policy and the availability of vaccines makes doing so possible,” he added.
Meanwhile, Msiza said that although the mining industry needed to continue working under the harsh and demanding conditions imposed by Covid-19, the goal of “zero harm” was still attainable and achievable with a renewed focus on the “new normal”.
“Adapting to the new normal requires us to look at how our employees are adapting to all the conditions brought about by regulations, protocols, a changed schedule of work, isolation and lockdown, as well as how the vulnerable employees are cared for in the industry,” he noted.
However, Msiza said the physical and mental needs of mining employees needed to become a greater priority, as Covid-19 was exacting a toll on workers’ mental health.
In this regard, Khumbul’ekhaya chairperson Themba Mkhwanazi said “Covid-19 fatigue” was setting in within the industry and was having a particular impact on health and safety. He suggested that people may be becoming complacent or otherwise tired of strenuous associated protocols, whether in an underground or aboveground exacting environment, such as that of mines.
Further, he said the factor of people being in a state of bereavement, seeing the loss of loved ones, family, colleagues and friends, and also having to deal with people being sick, plays on people’s minds, affecting the emotional, psychological and mental wellbeing of everyone.
This was evident as a contributing factor in some of the health and safety incidents that had taken place in the workplace since the pandemic started, revealed Mkhwanazi.
As a result, he said, a more significant focus was needed around mental wellbeing and how miners cope with the current environment.
Therefore, Mkhwanazi said, through the Khumbul’ekhaya strategy, a renewed focus must be placed on the health and safety of workers and workplaces, and the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic must be taken into account, especially at a frontline supervision and mining teams level.
“We remain committed to our Khumbul’ekhaya strategy and the key leadership actions we are undertaking as part of our drive to eliminate fatalities, change behaviour and transform our safety culture, through ongoing collaboration with our tripartite stakeholders in government and the unions, in our quest for zero harm,” he said.