High court to rule on silicosis class action against mines
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.