High court to rule on sil­i­co­sis class ac­tion against mines

CityPress - - Business - – De­wald van Rens­burg

The South Gaut­eng High Court in Jo­han­nes­burg is ex­pected to rule on the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of a class ac­tion for sick for­mer mine work­ers be­fore the end of this month – fi­nally paving the way for a con­clu­sion to one of South African gold min­ing’s ma­jor le­ga­cies.

Richard Spoor, one of the lawyers on the work­ers’ side, said: “We ex­pect that it will prob­a­bly be this month still.”

In the mean­time, new re­search sug­gests that the sil­i­co­sis sit­u­a­tion among mine work­ers who are still work­ing is just as bad as it was in the 1980s.

A pa­per pub­lished in De­cem­ber in med­i­cal jour­nal BMC Pub­lic Health com­pared chest X-rays from a sam­ple of 11 557 ac­tive gold mine work­ers be­tween 2004 and 2009 with par­tic­i­pants in a sim­i­lar ex­er­cise con­ducted in 1984.

The lead au­thors were David Knight and Rod­ney Ehrlich from the Univer­sity of Cape Town. Ehrlich was an ex­pert wit­ness called on by the class ac­tion’s lawyers on the work­ers’ side last year.

The 1984 data found a sil­i­co­sis preva­lence of only 1.4%, but also in­cluded a large pro­por­tion of young work­ers who did not have enough cu­mu­la­tive ex­po­sure to get sick. Among work­ers older than 45, 10.4% had sil­i­co­sis. In the new study, 10.5% of work­ers older than 45 have it.

The re­searchers did find that the sil­i­co­sis in one mine shaft that hap­pened to be part of both stud­ies showed a ma­jor de­cline, from 18% to 13%.

This is among peo­ple still work­ing, but the preva­lence of sil­i­co­sis among for­mer work­ers has been found to be any­thing be­tween 22% and 36%. Sil­i­co­sis takes years to de­velop. The po­ten­tial class ac­tion, the out­come of more than a decade of le­gal bat­tles, is tar­get­ing vir­tu­ally all gold min­ing com­pa­nies, past and present, for dam­ages re­lated to sil­i­co­sis.

The cases for and against al­low­ing an un­known num­ber of for­mer work­ers through­out the re­gion to sue as a group were heard last year.

It would be South Africa’s first class ac­tion suit on this scale, but talks around a set­tle­ment are likely to start if the court ac­tu­ally al­lows the class ac­tion to go ahead. The min­ing com­pa­nies said last year they wanted a “com­pre­hen­sive” so­lu­tion to all the po­ten­tial li­a­bil­i­ties that might still arise from lung dis­eases.

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