Bolstering safety in the mining industry

25 January 2017

By Minister Mosebenzi Zwane

THE health and safety of mineworkers came under the spotlight last week as the mineral resources department released the 2016 statistics on health and safety at our mines.

The mining sector employs approximately 470000 people and our goal remains that of ensuring that each and every one of these employees is able to return home to their loved ones unharmed every day.

This task is one we do not take lightly as we are fully aware that the death of a worker has a devastating impact on his or her family. We therefore have a collective responsibility as the regulator, together with mining companies, to ensure that our goal of zero harm is reached.

Data shows that the sector has seen a downward trend in the number of fatalities and injuries reported โ€“ 73 fatalities were recorded last year, compared to 77 in 2015.

The data shows that major gold and platinum mines are the main contributors of accidents and the loss of lives. At least 3 138 workers were injured at work in 2015, this decreased by 13% to 2 743 last year. There is an increase of 5% in the number of annual medial reports submitted by mines, while statutory reporting on HIV and tuberculosis increased by 31%.

The status in terms of occupational diseases remains a concern. Exposure levels to dust and noise โ€“ among others โ€“ remain higher than the legislated levels and later manifest themselves as occupational diseases including TB, silicosis and noise-induced hearing loss.

The data still fall short of our ultimate goal of zero harm. It is our view that even one death is still one too many.

We are particularly concerned about the performance of the platinum sector. Steps are being taken to address the regression we have seen in that sector. As the regulator of the mining and upstream petroleum industries, we are responsible for administering the law, and ensuring that there is compliance with the Mine Health and Safety Act.

Employers are primarily responsible for ensuring the provision of a healthy and safe working environment. Employees have the right to refuse to work in an environment which they deem unsafe and we encourage them to use this right.

The regulator is empowered in terms of section 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act to take appropriate action should the law be contravened.

If an inspector has reason to believe that practices or conditions at a mine endanger the health or safety of any person at the mine, the inspector may give any instruction to protect the health or safety of person(s) at the mine, including but not limited to an instruction that operations at the mine or part of the mine be halted; or that the performance of any act or practice at the mine or a part of the mine be suspended or halted and may place conditions on the performance of that act or practice.

The employer is then required to take the steps set out in the instruction, within the specified period, to rectify the situation.

The Act further provides for an opportunity for an employer to appeal a decision taken by the department in terms of section 54.

The department has come under severe criticism for its application of this law.

We firmly believe that the health and safety of workers should not be compromised in the bid to make a profit.

The lives of workers should not be cheapened in that manner. It is possible to mine safely, as many mining operations are demonstrating. We have seen an increase in the number of mining companies going for 12 months fatality-free, and we wish to encourage those still lagging behind to emulate their peers.

The accident which occurred at Lily mine last February continues to receive attention from the department. An inquiry is under way and we have begun engagements with the National Prosecuting Authority to strengthen the ability to prosecute those who are negligent in their responsibilities.

The finalisation of this work will benefit all of us, particularly the families of Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Nkambule and Solomon Nyerende.

Our approach to health and safety is that of working as a collective, through the Mine Health and Safety Council, where the government, employers and organised labour are represented.

We held a summit last November to take stock of how far we have come in the implementation of measures agreed at the 2014 summit and whether we are on track to meet our targets in the year 2024.

We remain resolute on the goal of zero harm and we believe we on track to realise this objective in the next few years.

Mosebenzi Zwane is Minister of Mineral Resources.