South African mining industry’s 2013 zero-harm attainment unlikely – social scientist

3rd September 2010

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor


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South Africa’s mining industry has committed itself to reducing the vast majority of accidents and, certainly, deaths by 2013.

The CEOs of more than 30 companies determined that 2013 will be the year in which South Africa’s mine safety will be on a par with the mine safety in industrialised countries like Canada, the US, Australia and the UK.

But Dr Philip Frankel, the author of the publication on mine safety, Falling Ground, is sceptical.

He suspects that the South African mining industry is not going to attain that 2013 safety target, let alone sustain it.

“This is a wonderful goal, but I don’t think this will happen by 2013,” social scientist Frankel tells Mining Weekly.

Two reasons are normally advanced to justify the high level of fatalities that South Africa’s mining industry suffers.

One is that South African mines are very deep, but Frankel only accepts that for the gold-mining industry.

“Yes, we mine deep in the gold industry, yet we have fatalities in platinum and even in the coal-mining industry, where the mining is not deep,” the former University of the Witwatersrand School of Social Sciences associate professor and current Agency for Social Reconstruction director emphasises.

What he pinpoints is that “there is something wrong with the culture, that is, the mindsets, behaviour, attitudes, perceptions and the social relationships in the mines”.

It is the human approach to mine safety that is the focus of Frankel’s 104-page Falling Ground publication, against the background of the Leon Commission finding that 69 000 people were killed in South Africa’s mining industry during the twentieth century and a million seriously injured, maimed and physically damaged.

Align the Behaviours with the Systems

Frankel is not for one moment suggesting that mines can do without technical risk management in the form of procedures, systems, rules and machines, but his contention is that the behaviour-based safety (BBS) measures that have been introduced in South Africa are the “wrong” ones, and that many mines are afflicted by organisational underdevelopment and immaturity, on which it is a waste of time and money to attempt to superimpose even correct BBS solutions.

One of his more worrying observations is that certain South African mines have still not adapted to the new democratic South Africa.

“When you look carefully at the sociology of some mines, you are reminded, to put it very bluntly, of the apartheid years,” Frankel finds.

The question he raises in Falling Ground is that, if at least 60% of the problem is a behavioural one, why is the bulk of the investment in the minority part of the problem.

“We need to focus on the 60% – and I’m being very conservative with that percentage – and align the behaviours with the systems.

“I am not saying that we haven’t done work in the behavioural area at all; a lot of investment has gone into addressing behaviour. But what I am saying is that the problem of behaviour is being addressed in the wrong way. We’re using BBS inappropriately,” he says.

He contends that South Africa has basically taken BBS models from countries like Canada and Australia and presumed that their introduction will also succeed in South Africa.

“The fact of the matter is it’s quite the opposite. Our workforce is different. Our history of management-labour relations is different,” he contends.

Also, mine organisation needs to have reached a high level of development – or “maturity” – before a behavioural intervention can be expected to be superimposed on it.

“You must have a basic level of coherence, trust, accountability and a sense of fairness between management and labour. If you have nothing like that – and, believe me, there are many mines in South Africa that don’t have anything like that – then spending money on BBS, even if appropriate, is a waste,” he says.

He finds that the problem, to a great degree, does not lie with the operators at the bottom, who are often accused of taking the risks and not complying with the rules.

“It’s not an operator problem. It’s an organisational problem, and, above all, it’s a senior management problem.

“Every senior manager will tell you that he has bought into zero harm. In actual fact, many speak the language of zero harm, but don’t really believe in it. The talk is there, but the walk is not.

“The driving force is production and when you get to the tension between production and safety, 90% of the time it’s the production target that’s pursued, and that’s because your corporate people are breathing down the neck of the mine manager, who is breathing down the neck of the shift boss, who is breathing down the neck of the supervisor, all the way down to operator level. And breathing down everyone’s neck are the investors, who want production.”

Every Death Costs R12m

Even though there are 138 mining fatalities a year, and that it is estimated that each fatality costs R12-million, this appears to be failing to focus the mind.

“When you kill a miner, you not only lose R6-million in direct costs, but also another R6-million on top of that in indirect costs, on retraining, looking after the deceased’s family, the cost of insurance and the immeasur- able relational cost,” Frankel says.

But those pursuing production bonuses see the R12-million as a theoretical intangible that appears inadequate to persuade them to knuckle down to safety.

Frankel advocates that, firstly, senior management needs to be educated more intensively on the business case for safety, on zero harm being possible and on accidents being preventable.

Secondly, the level of organisational development or the ‘organisational maturity’ must be measured before introducing a behavioural intervention in order to avoid wasting money and time.

Thirdly, besides the 138 fatalities a year, there are 3 000 reportable injuries, made through “very poor reporting systems”. A great proportion of the accidents are incapacitating accidents that cause permanent lifelong dis-abilities; some are near fatalities.

“I think what needs to be done is that we need to focus on the fatalities and on fatality risk management and setting fatality standards. I am not saying ignore the lost-time injuries, but get the fatalities down, and the inter- national vision of South Africa will change, and more senior management will begin to believe that it’s possible,” he says.

Fourthly, nothing in safety is going to improve until there is proper engagement with the workforce. “By engagement, I don’t mean consultation, but real understanding. We do not have managers who can go down and do visible leadership.

“Sure, we get people going down once a week now, which is a lot more than before, but they have no presence in the workplace. They have a cup of tea with the supervisor, who takes them to a stope that has been cleaned up in advance, because there is no surprise visit.

“There has to be senior management presence in the workplace, not just being there and not being seen, but being able to communicate to people about at-risk behaviour,” he says.

Hazard Investigation and Risk Analysis

More hazard investigation and risk analysis are needed, bearing in mind that mine labour is the most unskilled and illiterate sector of the industrial economy.

When a risk is seen, it must be absorbed into the information system of the mine, and better reporting is needed.

Most accident investigations tend to be about whom to blame. Distrust between senior leadership and operator is rife.

“You are talking about some organisations here that are seriously underdeveloped and it’s not surprising under the circumstances that South Africa has safety problems, particularly in mining, which is a dangerous business to begin with,” he says.

“We’ve got great laws, but they don’t work in the workplace. The State has to start seriously looking at building capacity within the Department of Mineral Resources. We just simply haven’t got inspectors who know what we are doing and three-quarters of the closures that occur these days are for trifling matters and they occur simply because the inspector doesn’t know what to do, because the mining companies won’t give them geological information to analyse an accident because the geological information is commercially valuable,” he says.

Every miner has the legal right to refuse to work in dangerous areas, but in practice he continues to work in them. He goes up to his supervisor, whom he will now probably call by his first name, and not baas, as was the case before.

“The supervisor has got an authority problem already because he’s not used to being called by his first name, and reminds the miner who is refusing to work in dangerous areas that a production bonus is at stake, and that the miner is part of a team that survives on production bonuses.

“That’s how it works in practice. You’ve got the law that tells people that they have a right to withdraw from risky areas, but they are obliged to work at risk because of the driving force of production.

“What we are doing through the production bonus system – which is the difference between a marginal existence for a worker and a reasonable living wage – is rewarding bad behaviour, mining at risk and doing so more quickly.

“That, interestingly enough, occurs even more after a mine has been closed because of a fatality or safety incident. Closing mines is a very powerful message to the industry. The State is now taking this very seriously, but the consequence of closing a mine, or even a shaft, is enormous.

“We’ve had the recent accident out at Marikana. Restarting the production process after prolonged closure is an incredibly difficult, and it leaves workers with targets to reach in half the time, so they’ll take more risks.

“The solution is for management to walk the talk and to live and breathe safety 24 hours a day, not occasionally, when they feel like it,” he says.

Peru Has 60 Deaths a Year

The mining industry in Peru, where Frankel also works, has fewer deaths a year – 60 – but then it employs fewer people, 100 000 compared with the 550 000 employed in South Africa.

The management in Peru is predominantly Hispanic and Eurocentric and the workers are predominantly of American Indian extraction.

Peru does not have as strong a legislation as South Africa’s in that Peruvian mines cannot be closed if there is a fatality or potential fatality, while South African mines can.

But, while South Africa has the legislation, Frankel says that it is difficult to implement, because of both the lack of inspectors and the South African mining industry’s perceived political clout.

“And it’s also difficult to implement because the mines often don’t comply. If the mining house doesn’t comply with the legislation, why on earth should you expect an operator or supervisor to comply? Noncompliance becomes the way things are done,” Frankel says.

While reaching one-million fatality-free shifts in South Africa is significant, that is routine in Canada, the US, Australia and the UK, but Frankel strongly queries South Africa’s potential to reach the level of industrialised nations by that targeted 2013 date, to which 30 CEOs committed their companies.

Edited by Martin Creamer
Creamer Media Editor


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