Hav­ing a blast down un­der

Min­ing en­gi­neer Pri­anka Padayachee was the first woman to chair the coun­cil of Wits Univer­sity’s renowned min­ing school and has earned her stripes at the coal­face by fac­ing dan­ger head-on and im­prov­ing drill-and-blast ac­tiv­i­ties, writes Sue Grant-Mar­shall

CityPress - - Business -

When Pri­anka Padayachee started work­ing un­der­ground at An­glo Amer­i­can Coal’s Zibulo Col­liery in Mpumalanga, men mut­tered: “What is this In­dian woman do­ing down here?” They stared at her blankly, ask­ing: “Are you lost?”

She chuck­les at the mem­ory, say­ing she thinks she is the first In­dian fe­male grad­u­ate to be taken on by An­glo Coal to work un­der­ground.

Coal is an un­sta­ble field in which to work. Meth­ane gas is re­leased when it is cut. A spark can set off a fire in­stantly. Even a flash from a cam­era can cre­ate a spark.

“We cannot take a Fit­bit, cell­phones or a cal­cu­la­tor un­der­ground be­cause it is so sen­si­tive,” ex­plains Padayachee.

The metaphor, “a canary in a coal mine”, stems from the days when mine work­ers used to carry caged ca­naries un­der­ground as a means of ad­vanced warn­ing.

If there was any meth­ane or car­bon monox­ide in the mine, the canary would die be­fore gas reached lev­els haz­ardous to hu­mans.

Padayachee, who has her gov­ern­ment cer­tifi­cate – with merit – for rock break­ing in a fiery clas­si­fied mine such as coal, is a shift over­seer at Coal SA’s Zibulo Col­liery.

It is she who goes into a sec­tion be­fore any mine work­ers do, to test for gas.

“Two days ago, I was waist deep in wa­ter in the mine. I never imag­ined I would be do­ing that,” says Padayachee, who is now a re­spected leader.

The mines re­main open 24 hours a day, with work­ers do­ing 12-hour shifts.

Padayachee comes to Jo­han­nes­burg for a few days’ break ev­ery three weeks.

“It is amaz­ing how your body ac­cli­ma­tises be­cause, yes, I sup­pose it is hell un­der earth – I have been down here when there have been fall-of-ground in­ci­dents. But I am so used to it now that it is al­most homely,” she re­flects.

“It has taken me two years to be able to say that. The smell of the coal, the oil, the diesel from the ma­chines and the noise cre­ate a unique en­vi­ron­ment.”

Last year, the de­ter­mined woman headed a project to im­ple­ment a strat­egy to im­prove drill-and-blast op­er­a­tions at her mine.

She in­tro­duced a new blast­ing pat­tern on the day that the mine over­seer was with her.

“The av­er­age ad­vance of a blast into the coal at the time was 0.8 to 1 me­tre. I asked if I could charge the face us­ing my blast­ing pat­tern. He agreed a bit du­bi­ously, and on that day, the ad­vance we achieved was 3 me­tres deep.”

He was as­ton­ished and told Padayachee that she “makes us look good”.

“I have been for­tu­nate enough to work with amaz­ingly sup­port­ive men,” she says.

Padayachee grew up in Le­na­sia South, “and as a lit­tle girl, I spent my days break­ing things such as com­put­ers and TVs so I could learn how to put them to­gether again. My dad taught me early on how to change our car’s oil and tyres.”

She loved ge­og­ra­phy at school and de­cided to study ge­ol­ogy. “An­glo gave me a bur­sary and I moved into engi­neer­ing, be­com­ing the first per­son in my fam­ily to do so.”

Her sis­ter, Ve­neshree, is an ob­ste­tri­cian and was a huge in­spi­ra­tion. Their mother died when the sis­ters were young, “and she took over”.

The en­gi­neer was elected chair­per­son of the Wits Min­ing School Coun­cil and was also awarded the SA In­sti­tute of Min­ing and Me­tal­lurgy Pres­tige Prize in the fi­nal year of her BSc.

“It is an age-old tradition at the min­ing school to get its past stu­dents – now of­ten CEOs – to ex­plain what min­ing is all about. We take stu­dents on tours of mines and they meet en­gi­neers, who ex­plain the pros and Al­ways strive to be the in­spi­ra­tion that you needed when you were start­ing out. Wes­sel Wes­sels, a busi­ness im­prove­ment man­ager at An­glo Amer­i­can. Any­thing to do with his­tory, and bi­ogra­phies – es­pe­cially on Barack Obama, Win­ston Churchill, Nel­son Man­dela and Richard Bran­son. My sis­ter Ve­neshree, who en­cour­aged me to go into a “boys

Men­tor: Books: In­spi­ra­tion:

only” field.

Wow! mo­ment: Life les­son:

Set­ting off a con­trolled blast at the coal face. If your dreams don’t scare you, then they aren’t big enough. cons of the in­dus­try.’

Padayachee is sur­prised that there are so few sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and maths stu­dents at univer­sity. “Women make up only 4% of the reg­is­tered pro­fes­sional en­gi­neers in South Africa. We need more fe­male men­tors.”

In the lit­tle time Padayachee has to re­lax, she reads vo­ra­ciously, goes to the gym and en­joys trav­el­ling.

She plans to do her mas­ter’s de­gree in engi­neer­ing next year, fol­lowed by an MBA. Her ul­ti­mate goal is to be­come CEO of An­glo Amer­i­can.

The woman who was asked if she had “lost her way” down a mine has her path mapped out.

PHOTO: LEON SADIKI

IT’S A GAS Min­ing en­gi­neer Pri­anka Padayachee en­joys the unique en­vi­ron­ment of a coal mine

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