Mine deaths worsening, Section 28 artisans in many accidents

17th March 2009 By: Martin Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

PRETORIA (miningweekly.com) – More mine workers had died so far this year on South African mines than in the same period last year, and many accidents involved Section 28 artisans previously unacceptable to South Africa’s Chamber of Mines, the Exxaro safety summit heard on Tuesday.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) safety head Mziwakhe Nhlapo told the summit at the CSIR Convention Centre that 34 miners had died to date this year, 12 more than for the same period in 2008.

“We’re sitting on 34 fatalities for this year. Over the same period last year the fatality rate was 22,” he lamented.

Since he spoke, at least two more miners have died.

UASA sector manager Charles De Carvalho pointed out that his union had found that many of the accidents involved Section 28 artisans, who were previously unacceptable to the Chamber of Mines.

De Carvalho said that, in the past, only artisans who had completed a full trade test where acceptable to the Chamber of Mines, but, as a result of the shortage of mining-industry artisans, many Section 28 artisans had been employed.

“We have picked up that a lot of accidents that have happened involve those Section 28 artisans, because they haven’t got the experience and the knowledge,” De Carvalho said.

Chamber of Mine CEO Zoli Diliza was not present to comment on the deterioration. He arrived later, but could not be approached for comment as he had to attend to other duties.

Solidarity safety spokesperson Leigh McMaster said that the Chief Inspectorate of Mines was compiling a real-time database, which would enable the media to publish safety statistics on a daily basis.

Standing in for NUM president Senzeni Zokwana, Nhlapo said that the leading causes of the deaths of the 34 were fall of ground, transportation and machinery, and NUM urged the implementation of best practice and better use of equipment that warned of impending seismic danger so that people could be removed from dangerous areas.

He suggested that current mining retrenchment could also be a cause of lower worker morale, which could be a contributing factor to the increased number of deaths.

“If you have a worker that comes to work with a low morale, that worker’s concentration and motivation may be low and a person could be prone to an accident. Therefore it becomes important for worker morale, under conditions of retrenchment, to be continually elevated,” Nhlapo added.

Exxaro executive GM safety Nombasa Tsengwa said that because the law forced every single mine death to be investigation, there was a considerable knowledge base that pointed to clear corrective action.

On the practice f the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) to shut mines where fatalities had occurred, Tsengwa said that the DME was also closing mines where incidents had recurred repeatedly owing to non-compliance.

“That really keeps us aware of the need to correct mistakes. Having a strong regulator helps us. However, we have to move away from the situation that the regulator is the only one carrying a stick. Now is the time for us to be our own regulators. We see a lot of repeats and we need to share best practice,” she added.

Solidarity mining head Marius Croucamp said that the industry was experiencing and increase in accident-related Section 54 mine closures, not only by the DME, but also by mine employees.

Croucamp said that was encouraging as it indicated that people were no longer afraid to stop mining when conditions were unsafe.

He said the solution to the problem of mine safety lay within the tripartite relationship between the unions, employers and government.

Unions were being regularly invited to safety summits and were also paying regular visits to the DME.

“But is still remains that these statistics are unacceptable to all of us and we are working hard to change that,” Croucamp added.

McMaster conceded that current statistics indicated a slackening in levels of compliance, but added that mining industry was invariably at the forefront of death statistics, whereas other less regulated industries, the informal construction industry being one, escaped critical attention.

McMaster said that since the Presidential audit process into mine safety had ended, primarily the Chamber of Mines and its partners had done valuable work.

Work included combating of noise-induced hearing loss, which was a major mining-industry health problem, mainly through conversion to far lower-decibel electric rockdrills.

Nhlapo said that, as much as work was being done, more could be done, and that research, which should be pursued and analysed was instead gathering dust.

Exxaro CEO Sipho Nkosi said that Exxaro was still suffering loss of life and the company was also not achieving its injury reduction targets.

Nkosi, who is also currently president of the Chamber of Mines, said that something was not right in the organisation and that was why the safety summit had been called

Every week a lost time injury was reported, but it was unclear whether anything was being learnt to ensure prevention in the future.

Former Exxaro CEO Dr Con Fauconnier said the new King Three report, now open for public commentary, mentioned the word “ethics” more than 100 times, and ethics needed to be applied to safety so that personnel did the right thing, even when nobody was watching.

Du Pont South Africa’s Wian Strydom said that the answer lay in behaviour-based safety, which was the only way to attain safety excellence.