Unions take on ‘un­safe’ min­ing sec­tor

Mail & Guardian - - News - Go­van Whit­tles

Two earth­quakes pre­ceded the deaths of seven minework­ers at Sibanye Still­wa­ter’s mine in We­stonaria, the com­pany said this week. The min­eral re­sources de­part­ment has launched a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion amid re­newed calls for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions un­der­ground.

The Na­tional Union of Minework­ers (NUM) and union fed­er­a­tion Cosatu led a march to the Cham­ber of Mines on Thurs­day against com­pa­nies that al­legedly cut corners on safety to max­imise prof­its.

The 2.1 mag­ni­tude earth­quake that caused the col­lapse at Still­wa­ter mine fol­lowed another larger earth­quake, eight kilo­me­tres away.

“We were in the process of mo­bil­is­ing all the res­cue teams when the sec­ond seis­mic event hap­pened,” said

Sibanye spokesper­son James Well­sted.

“But it still wasn’t in the [com­pany’s op­er­a­tions area] so we have to work out why it caused more dam­age.”

But NUM health and safety chair­per­son

Peter Bai­ley said tremors be­fore the seis­mic events should have trig­gered Sibanye’s early warn­ing sys­tems, and the sup­port sys­tem for the roof should have pre­vented the col­lapse.

“The sup­port sys­tem is what keeps the roof in­tact … If it is ad­e­quate, and warn­ing signs ad­hered to, it would have been a dif­fer­ent ball game,”

Bai­ley said.

The NUM ques­tioned whether ad­e­quate sup­port was in place at

Still­wa­ter be­fore the sec­ond earth­quake hit.

But Well­sted said

Sibanye had ad­e­quate sup­port in place.

“Ob­vi­ously our deeplevel min­ing lay­outs are de­signed to with­stand this sort of seis­mic ac­tiv­ity. So we’ve had to de­sign sys­tems that can cater for that,” he said.

The gov­ern­ment has not yet com­pleted its as­sess­ment of

Sibanye’s sup­port sys­tem and it is not clear when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be com­pleted.

Sibanye said it would co-op­er­ate fully with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Three years ago

South Africa had one of the best mine safety records world­wide.

In 2007, there were

220 fa­tal­i­ties and the number had steadily de­clined. But last year, the number of fa­tal­i­ties in­creased from 77 in 2016 to 86.

This is partly because of in­creased seis­mic ac­tiv­ity, min­ing com­pa­nies said this week.

Falls of ground are com­mon in deep min­ing and can be trig­gered by seis­mic events, the Cham­ber of Mines said. Fall of ground is a term for ac­ci­dents that re­late to the un­ex­pected move­ment of rock and the un­con­trolled re­lease of de­bris and rock, ac­cord­ing to the Mine Health and Safety Coun­cil.

In 2003, when the highest number, of seis­mic events was last recorded by the cham­ber, 48 of the 270 min­ers who died were killed in falls of ground ac­ci­dents. Last year the in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­enced an in­crease in seis­mic ac­tiv­ity, said the cham­ber’s head of safety, Sizwe Phakati.

“A par­tic­u­lar con­cern has been the in­crease in the number of rock­bursts re­lated to seis­mic ac­tiv­ity while the number of rock­falls … de­creased.” The cham­ber has spent R250-mil­lion on re­search on seis­mic ac­tiv­ity to re­duce the safety risk since then, Phakati said. It has also es­tab­lished a fall of ground task team.

This is not the first time the NUM and Sibanye have been at log­ger­heads. The union has pre­vi­ously ac­cused the com­pany of ig­nor­ing safety of­fi­cers, whose job it is to raise red flags when they ob­serve a risk.

Bai­ley said the NUM has found com­pa­nies ig­nor­ing of­fi­cers and threatening them with dis­ci­plinary ac­tion. Min­ing com­pa­nies had “the at­ti­tude that, when work­ers want to with­draw from a dan­ger­ous work­place, they want to first agree that it is dan­ger­ous. [Yet] the Mine Health Safety Act says ‘if it is deemed un­safe in the opin­ion of the worker’.”

He said there had been an ex­o­dus of com­pe­tent safety in­spec­tors when Mosebenzi Zwane was min­ing min­is­ter. “We now want to call on the new min­is­ter [Gwede Man­tashe] to em­ploy highly com­pe­tent peo­ple to en­force the Mine Health and Safety Act.”

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