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Significant changes to South African mining methods required – Hermanus

CSIR Natural Resources and Environment executive director May Hermanus

CSIR Natural Resources and Environment executive director May Hermanus

Photo by Duane Daws

31st August 2016

By: Ilan Solomons

Creamer Media Staff Writer

  

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KEMPTON PARK (miningweekly.com) –  If there is no substantial change in the mining methods used in South Africa, gold and platinum mining could cease in 2033 and 2029, respectively, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Natural Resources and Environment executive director Mavis Ann ‘May’ Hermanus warned on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s 2016 MineSafe conference, she said it would be possible to extend the lifespan of the country’s existing mines through the introduction of continuous and mechanised mining methods.

However, this meant that health and safety (H&S) risk profiles would change and would require a major reskilling of a large proportion of the existing mine labour force.

Moreover, she said that, since the launch of Mining Phakisa, there had been a lot of discussion about the need to establish a mining cluster, that enhances research and development initiatives and establishes local mining equipment manufacturing capacity to create job opportunities that may be lost in the mining sector owing to the shift towards the mechanisation of mines.

“The issue of employment in the mining sector, particularly in the mine equipment and mineral beneficiation sectors will play a pivotal role in how H&S develops in the industry. It is also imperative that the mining industry’s goal is to ensure there are sustainable communities and, therefore, a sustainable society broadly,” Hermanus stated.

In response to Mining Weekly Online’s questions regarding the mechanisation and automation of underground mines in South Africa to reduce injury and fatality numbers, Hermanus said she did not believe there was currently a business case for mechanising narrow reef mines.

“We need to develop this business case and there is plenty of work that needs to be done. However, it is very clear that if we do not do anything, and face up to challenges facing the sector . . . we will simply run out of options on how to proceed,” she said.

Further, Hermanus highlighted that the mining sector best represented the challenges that the country, as a whole, was faced with, namely addressing issues of diversity, inclusiveness, environmental management and long-term sustainability. 

MINE HEALTH AND SAFETY ACT
She pointed out that the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) had been in existence for the past 20 years and that it was “critically important” to examine the developments that had occurred in the mine H&S space during this period.

Hermanus, a former Mines Chief Inspector, explained that the MHSA was specifically aimed at addressing issues related to occupational health and disease management in the sector.

She added that it had given a voice to the people who work in the industry, as the Act had enabled mineworkers to formulate what the areas of concern were, frame the problems and propose solutions.

“The MHSA also established a number of instruments to try and address these problems, such as the Mine Health and Safety Council,” Hermanus remarked.

The Act introduced a series of H&S protocols to the sector, such as risk management systems, industry H&S milestones, the Mining Industry Occupational Safety and Health regulations, skills development programmes and a ‘Broken Windows Enforcement Policy’ among other initiatives.

The ‘broken windows’ theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes, such as vandalism, public drinking and toll-jumping, helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.

Hermanus commented that the Mines Inspectorate had, in many ways, applied this policy through the regular use of the Section 54 work stoppage order and other such measures.

However, she conceded that there needed to be a broader discussion about whether such drastic measures were always required, as it had been reported that Section 54 work stoppages had cost South African mines R834-million in the first half of 2016 alone.

Nonetheless, Hermanus stressed that there had been a significant improvement in H&S standards across the sector since the implementation of the MHSA, even if some of the key H&S targets had yet to be achieved. She said these improvements had enabled South Africa to benchmark itself alongside global mining powers, such as Australia, Canada and the US, in terms of H&S levels in many instances.

SECTOR SIGNIFICANCE
Meanwhile, Hermanus pointed out that it was important to highlight that the local mining sector had delivered a development dividend to the country but that this dividend had been “skewed” and, therefore, going forward it had to be delivered on very different terms, both socially and environmentally, and “done within the context of global change”.

Hermanus said South Africa had very labour-intensive forms of mining in the gold and platinum sectors, in particular, which lay at the heart of many of the problems that are currently besetting these sectors.

Moreover, she highlighted that mineworkers had on average 12 to 15 dependants.

She commented that the National Development Plan called for the creation of significantly more jobs in the country. However, Hermanus conceded that the local mining industry was increasingly becoming more mechanised, which may result in decreases in workforce size in future.

Hence, the sensitivity among labour unions and government regarding the implementation of mechanised technologies in mines.

“South Africa has an abundance of natural resources, with reserves estimated at a value of about $205-trillion. The country also possesses some of the largest reserves of platinum-group metals, chromium, titanium and gold,” she added. 

Additionally, Hermanus highlighted that many of South Africa’s major mining complexes were located in the northern regions of the country and it was in these areas that “the highest levels of marginalisation and poverty” were found.

She stated that these were the reasons why most of the calls were coming from government and local communities for mines to do more than just ensure safe production at their operations. 

She further pointed out that many mines had been established in populated areas where the country’s major water resources and arable land were located. “This is likely to create tension among farmers, local populations and mines, as they are all heavily dependent on these resources to live and for commercial purposes,” Hermanus cautioned. 

She remarked that when evaluating risks related to H&S in the local mining industry there were a number of factors that needed to be taken into account, including orebody characteristics, extraction methods, mineworkers, the equipment used and the environment in which the industry operated.

Hermanus emphasised that the tools that were used to mitigate these risks must also be taken into consideration.

“H&S is fundamentally concerned about peoples wellbeing and high standards of H&S and peoples’ livelihoods are very strongly correlated to human wellbeing. Hence, the dilemma facing the mining sector is balancing the need to ensure workers’ wellbeing while also securing their livelihoods,” she concluded.

Edited by Samantha Herbst
Creamer Media Deputy Editor

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