South Africa’s mining industry suffered 49 fatalities in 2022 – a 34% improvement on the 74 fatalities of 2021 and a record low, thereby continuing the downward trend many in the mining industry have been rallying behind.
“There has been no mine disaster or an accident where five or more people lose their lives recorded in the past three years,” Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe highlighted during a media briefing on January 31.
He attributed the improvement in mine safety to concerted efforts by all social partners who actively participated in the health and safety campaigns throughout the years.
However, the Minister implored the mining industry to “redouble” its efforts and ensure that there is no loss of life in the industry as “one life lost is one too many”.
Labour union the National Union of Mineworkers agreed that 49 deaths were still too many.
“Our view . . . is that some of those deaths could have been completely avoided. We cannot continue with the same triggers of incidents responsible for injuries and fatalities in the mining industry.
“South Africa is capable of developing technology that can foretell the fall-of-ground (FoG), seismic events which are most notorious for mining disasters. If we care about human life, the expenses or cost towards procuring such advanced technology should not matter much,” the union said in a statement.
“The statistics indicate that the most significant progress recorded is in the reduction of deaths from FoG accidents. There has been a reduction of 70% from 20 fatalities in 2021 to six in 2022,” Mantashe pointed out.
The Minerals Council South Africa noted that there were encouraging signs that initiatives like the Elimination of Falls of Ground Action Plan (FOGAP) adopted by the council’s board and CEO Zero Harm Forum in July 2021 were contributing to the reduction in fatalities.
The number of FoG fatalities had fallen to an average of 24 a year in the 2016 to 2020 period, from an average of 111 a year during 2001 to 2005 – a 78% improvement. The key interventions were the implementation of entry examinations and actively making working areas safe daily from 2009.
In 2012, netting and bolting of tunnel roofs and walls were introduced and the use of steel nets has become a common feature in South Africa’s deep-level mines.
Further, no machinery-related fatalities were recorded in 2022, an improvement on the three recorded in 2021.
However, Mantashe said considerable focus had to be put on transportation-related accidents, which have become an emerging source of occupational fatalities. Fatalities under this category increased from 16 in 2021 to 17 in 2022.
“To address the challenge of transportation-related accidents at mines, all stakeholders are urged to implement the collision avoidance systems brought about by the introduction of the new regulations on trackless mobile machinery,” he said.
The council said it would maintain implementation of the Khumbul'ekhaya safety strategy, which includes the FOGAP, as well the trackless mobile machinery/collision prevention system projects, to further improve the industry’s safety performance.
Meanwhile, occupational injuries decreased by 4% year-on-year to 2 056 injuries in 2022, most of which were the result of repeat accidents categorised as general types of accidents, falls of ground, as well as transportation and mining respectively.
Of the total injuries, 1 946 were categorised as serious, down from 2 123 serious injuries in 2021, the Minerals Council reported.
However, the council noted that the performance on occupational diseases and the milestones achieved show a “mixed picture”, with improvements in some areas but stagnation and deterioration in others.
“Companies are urged to do more to achieve industry targets,” the council said.
Nonetheless, the domestic mining industry recorded its lowest figure on record of 1 924 occupational diseases in 2021 – a 4.42% reduction year-on-year.
Silicosis cases declined by 11.4% year-on-year, to 240 cases in 2021; while the platinum group metals (PGMs) sector recorded a 67% reduction in silicosis cases, with 11 in 2021. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy notes that in the PGMs sector silicosis was largely owing to a significant number of former gold miners finding work in mining PGMs, thereby bringing with them gold mining-related illnesses, such as silicosis.
The gold sector experienced a 3.4% decline in silicosis cases to 225 in 2021.
Tuberculosis cases in 2021 totalled 225 cases, the lowest rate to date.
Going forward, the Minerals Council said, the local mining industry would build on the momentum it achieved in 2022 when it halted and significantly reversed the regression in safety during the previous two years in which 74 and 60 mineworkers died, respectively.
“This has been the result of many organisational and industry level interventions and resolute leadership from, particularly, the industry CEOs initiating and supporting multi-tier projects as part of the Khumbul’ekhaya strategy,” said Minerals Council safety and sustainable development acting head Lerato Tsele.
“The significant step change in safety during 2022, following the record low number of fatalities of 51 in 2019, proves that we are back on the right track with our safety initiatives but that there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us.
“We must maintain constant vigilance and safety management in partnership and collaboration with all our stakeholders to achieve our goal of zero harm,” she said.