In a mine when an earthquake strikes

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID MCKAY david@min­

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.

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