R5bn aid a ‘good start’ for stricken gold min­ers

Saturday Star - - NEWS - SHEREE BEGA

WHEN, IN THE EARLY 1980S, Dr Rhett Kahn started work­ing for Har­mony as a mine med­i­cal of­fi­cer in the Free State town of Vir­ginia he couldn’t be­lieve how many young men lay in the mine’s hospi­tal beds, stricken with TB.

“One year, there was a big re­trench­ment and they lined up the TB peo­ple (for re­trench­ment). Rhett wrote to the mine man­ager, com­plain­ing that this was un­fair labour prac­tice and they re­in­stated the whole lot,” re­mem­bers his wife, Janet.

“But when the next re­trench­ment came along, Rhett was re­trenched even though he was the sec­ond-long­est mine med­i­cal of­fi­cer at Har­mony… He was seen as too left-wing.”

For decades, Khan and his wife have treated thou­sands of ail­ing gold mine work­ers, many from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, suf­fer­ing from sil­i­co­sis – a pro­gres­sive lung dis­ease caused by the in­hala­tion of sil­ica dust in gold mines – and TB at their small Welkom clinic.

The cou­ple wel­come this week’s his­toric R5bn set­tle­ment from sev­eral min­ing firms to com­pen­sate sickly minework­ers as a “good start”.

“Look, it’s a com­pro­mise po­si­tion as 5% of the peo­ple in the class-ac­tion law­suit have al­ready died while wait­ing for this set­tle­ment to come out. The lawyers can’t wait an­other 10 years be­cause they will lose 40 per­cent of the work­ers.

“But my prob­lem with the agree­ment is that it doesn’t cover em­phy­sema and doesn’t cover treat­ment. The mines are sup­posed to pay for the treat­ment but they don’t.

“There is no treat­ment for sil­i­co­sis, but there cer­tainly is pal­lia­tive treat­ment,” says Janet. “When some­one needs home oxy­gen, that is ex­cep­tion­ally ex­pen­sive. Asthma pumps can help re­lieve the tight­ness of chest. If you have sil­i­co­sis, you are more prone to get­ting TB, and there are tablets that can help you pre­vent that.”

The Kahns, who worked with lawyer Richard Spoor since the early 2000s, say many minework­ers over the years asked them why the clas­s­ac­tion law­suit was tak­ing so long.

“You try to ex­plain how the courts are slow but it’s dif­fi­cult. The R5bn the mines are pay­ing is not enough for all the dam­age they have done to peo­ple.”

The cou­ple worry about minework­ers in the early stages of sil­i­co­sis, who can still work, but are un­able to.

“In­stead of the mines say­ing ‘let’s give you proper pro­tec­tion so more dust doesn’t get in your lungs and you can go back to your job or work on an­other mine, they are stopped from work­ing. That’s a huge prob­lem. They get their R63 000 com­pen­sa­tion and then what? They take that lit­tle bit of money to the East­ern Cape, or they maybe be­come zama-za­mas. What else can they do?”

Gold min­ing firms, they be­lieve, are not do­ing enough to pro­tect cur­rent gold mine work­ers.

“They don’t pro­vide the right face masks and peo­ple tell us how soon they go back un­der­ground af­ter blast­ing. Un­til the mines get the right kind of drills with lots of wa­ter to damp down the dust, there won’t be an im­prove­ment.

The Oc­cu­pa­tional Lung Dis­ease work­ing group, which set­tled in the mat­ter, says min­ing com­pa­nies have made sig­nif­i­cant progress in un­der­ground dust pre­ven­tion over the years.

“But all par­ties be­lieve that there should be con­tin­u­ing im­prove­ment in un­der­ground dust man­age­ment tech­niques so as to en­sure that sil­i­co­sis and TB cease to be oc­cu­pa­tional health risks.”

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