In a mine when an earthquake strikes
It’s only possible to f it 150 people in a single mine cage at a time. So when t he 5. 3 magnitude earthquake hit the defunct mining town of Stilfontein in the NorthWest province there was real concern in the nearby AngloGold Ashanti mines.
“The most terrif ying day of my l i fe,” is how t he company’s CEO, Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan, describes t he event, knowing t hat some 3 300 employees were trapped underground at the Great Noligwa and Moab Khotsong mines.
First t he l ights went out as the earthquake, which was felt as far afield as KwaZulu-Natal, knocked out t he nearby Eskom sub-stat ion. “It could have been about only 30 seconds before our emergency generator kicked in,” said Stewart Bailey, spokesperson for the group.
But what a terrifying period of time that must have been for t he mineworkers; it’s instructive that some of the miners underground at the time were sent for post-traumatic counselling. “They wouldn’t have been sure if the walls were falling in. Then when the lights came on there was only dust,” he said.
The engineering team had to then conduct shaft inspections before the hoisting of people could commence and ensure that the steelwork in the shaft hadn’t buckled. Had this been the case, escape from the mines by the mine cages would have proved more diff icult. Once the shafts had been secured, and bearing in mind cage capacities and a 12-minute round trip from mining levels to surface, it would take approximately an hour to move 600 people.
Within s even hours, however, all 3 300 miners were successfully evacuated from the mines. That’s no mean achievement since at its deepest the shafts descend to 3km. There were also only 28 injuries, most of them minor. Privately, AngloGold Ashanti people view the response to the earthquake a towering achievement of what can go right when procedure is followed.
It must have been easy for t he miners work i ng underground t o fear the worst when the earthquake struck. The fact of the matter is that underground fatalities from seismic activity and other falls of ground are all too common an event.
That’s why AngloGold Ashanti made such a song and dance about its latest safety statistics: AngloGold reported its first fatality-free quarter since 2010 and only its third in its history when it posted second quarter figures on 11 August, a record that extends for two months into the previous quarter. It also registered its second ever lowest all-injury frequency rate of 6.79 per million man hours in the second quarter.
In the context of a single company performance, these are signif icant achievements but the fact that a company can celebrate a three-month period without having an employee die is an index of how dangerous South Africa’s mining sector really is.
“I don’t like to brag about safety results when people are still dying on our mines,” said Mike O’Hare, AngloGold Ashanti’s chief operating off icer. “But for 14 months, we’ve not had a fall of ground fatality which, given the environment, is quite an achievement.” Compare t his to AngloGold ’s safety statistics for 2006, which show some 37 fatalities – roughly a death every 10 days on the mine, against five months of no fatalities currently.
From an industry-wide perspective, safety on SA’s mines has been improving. According to the latest statistics available on the website of the Chamber of Mines, there were 270 fatalities on all of the country’s mines in 2003 of which 149 were on the gold mines.
There were more employed on the gold mines at that time, nonetheless, the figure had shrunk to 168 in total in 2009 and 112 in total in 2012 of which 53 were on the country’s gold mines.