Poisoned, laid-off workers left in the lurch
FIVE years have passed since doctors picked up the first evidence of “manganese madness” in several workers at the Assmang factory in Cato Ridge – but now the workers and their families are losing hope of telling their stories in the law courts.
There was a time about three years ago when the sick workers were optimistic that their concerns were being treated seriously by the Department of Labour, which held an exhaustive, 18-month inquiry into toxic dust levels and sickness at Assmang. Hopes have dimmed considerably since then.
The inquiry came to an end in November 2008, but it took almost two years before a final report was handed over to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
Since then, there has been no word from the NPA on whether Assmang will face criminal charges for workplace safety violations or injuring the health of workers, and the Labour Department has refused to release a copy of the report following a public inquiry process.
“This case is just fading away... it looks like Assmang has won,” said Sharene Wright, widow of factory foreman Freddie Wright who died in January 2007, allegedly after being exposed to high levels of manganese dust.
“I have been trying to find what is happening with our case for years and years. When the inquiry finished, we thought it was just a matter of months before the case went to court, but three Christmases have passed since then and here we are today, still in the dark.”
Wright has since moved to Pietermaritzburg to be close to her children following the death of the family’s main breadwinner at the age of 49.
Vissy Naicker, one of at least 10 workers sacked by the factory when a team of medical experts found that they were too sick to work, is also giving up hope.
Naicker, 33, was diagnosed with manganism, an occupational disease linked to excessive or prolonged exposure to harmful levels of manganese – a heavy metal that can cause a range of health problems which include permanent brain damage, tremors in the fingers and limbs, impotence, headaches, depression, insomnia and difficulty in walking.
After losing his job four years ago, Naicker also had to move out of Cato Ridge and he has relocated to Newcastle to live with family members. His wife is not working and the couple support themselves and their five-year-old son, Tristan, on workmen’s compensation benefits based on a reduced percentage of Naicker’s old Assmang salary.
Naicker says he is still on daily medication to control his health problems. “I have a problem with fatigue and cramps. Sometimes my limbs just refuse to work properly. My balance is also a problem and I have memory issues,” he said.
Donnie du Plessis, 49, a father of five who moved to Pietermaritzburg after losing his job at Assmang, still has an 11-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter at school.
“I don’t know what is happening any more. The unions have been trying to get some answers and there have also been questions raised in Parliament, but it looks to me that we have just been thrown to the wolves.”
Du Plessis said Assmang still paid half of his medical expenses, but costs were rising every year.
“I was in hospital for five months last year and the whole family just goes backwards every time I go into hospital. My balance is getting worse and my whole body is stiff. I’m going mad. Sometimes I just want to pack my things and go up to the mountains to end this,” he said.
Joshua Haarhof, a father of three who was diagnosed with permanent brain damage, now lives in Waterfall and still has to visit doctors and specialists regularly.
“I still have great difficulty walking and my doctor has put me on new medication to try to relax my body because of the shakes,” he said. “My whole body just goes into convulsions – the last time it happened, it went on for one-and-a-half hours.”
During an inquiry at the Cato Ridge Country Club in 2008, Haarhof gave permission to doctors to disclose his personal medical problems to the labour department public inquiry.
His attorney, Richard Spoor, asked Pietermaritzburg specialist psychiatrist and medical doctor Rosemary Mason to read out a report she had written to the Labour Department compensation commissioner, in which she attributed Haarhof’s illness and injuries to prolonged exposure to manganese dust.
Clearly concerned about her ethical responsibilities, she asked: “Does that mean that the whole of South Africa can read the report?”
“Yes,” Spoor responded. “Mr Haarhof understands this and consents to it.”
In her report, Mason said her patient joined Assmang as a production foreman in 1994. He worked at the company for 12 years and was exposed to fine particles of manganese dust on a regular basis.
Haarhof had been a fit and energetic family man when he joined the company at the age of 40. He was also an active sportsman, playing cricket, golf and squash, but he stopped playing around 2001 because he tired quickly, he found it difficult to run and his ball skills had deteriorated. The symptoms began gradually and insidiously and by 2003, he had difficulty walking. His mental health also deteriorated and when he was examined in 2007, he complained of depression, tiredness, loss of appetite and loss of libido.
Mason said he was emotional, upset and anxious about his financial future owing to his illness and there was a tremor in his right hand.
“He was in a state of despair and felt wretched and suicidal. My diagnosis was severe, major depressive disorder and cognitive impairment… There is unequivocal evidence of brain damage found by me and all the other professionals who have examined him,” she said.
In her opinion, Haarhof was suffering from irreversible Parkinson’s syndrome and brain damage due to manganism. She noted that the symptoms and causes of Parkinson’s syndrome were associated with a build-up of heavy metal toxin in the brain and should not be confused with Parkinson’s disease, a rare condition normally associated with the elderly.
“He will never be able to work again in any capacity. Unfortunately, he was taken out of the toxic factory environment too late. His brain damage is now fixed and irreversible, and has shown no improvement over the past 18 months,” said Mason.
Haarhof ’s wife was also traumatised and needed treatment for depression.
During the inquiry, Cato Ridge medical practitioner Dr Johnny do Vale said he examined several Assmang employees who showed signs or symptoms of manganism, or who had high levels of manganese in their blood.
Altogether, about 80 people from Assmang’s workforce of 700 staff were sent for more comprehensive medical assessment after a new health-screening process was introduced in 2006 to detect employees who had high levels of manganese in their blood, or who displayed unexplained signs or symptoms consistent with manganism. Do Vale said he did not know how many of these workers were subsequently diagnosed with manganism, but he had personally reported 14 suspected cases to the Department of Labour and the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act commissioner.
Earlier this week, Haarhof told The Mercury he was still hopeful that the case would go to court.
“I’m told that the case has been referred to a prosecutor, but I really don’t know where the blockage is in the system or why it is taking so long,” he said.
Puleng Mminele, national co-ordinator of occupational health and safety of the Numsa metalworkers union, said he had also been unable to get any answers on whether the NPA intended to take Assmang to court.
“The Department of Labour seems to expend considerable time and expense investigating occupational health and safety issues but, when the reports reach the NPA, they just seem to gather dust. We wonder if they lack the necessary skills and experience to prosecute such cases.”
NPA national spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga has not responded to written queries, while the authority’s KZN spokeswoman, Natasha Ramkisoon, said the prosecutor handling the case had not informed her about progress on the matter.
Assmang executive director Jan Steenkamp said the company’s legal representatives had also contacted the NPA repeatedly.
“We have asked about this on numerous occasions and I think the last time we enquired was about a month ago. But we still know nothing. They won’t even give us a copy of the (labour department) report. All we have been told is that the NPA will study the report and communicate with us in due course.”
While Assmang initially appeared to accept that at least 10 of its former workers were sick from exposure to manganese dust, there was a dramatic about-turn in May 2008, when the company told the Labour Department it believed that workers had been misdiagnosed and Assmang no longer believed that any of its workers were suffering from manganism.
The company said its opinion was based on the conclusions reached by a new team of medical experts, but conceded that they did not physically examine any of the 10 workers diagnosed by the first group of medical experts.