• First aid kit

    The continent needs balance in terms of supervisory mechanisms to ensure mine safety without causing harm to productivity.

    First aid kit

    In 2014, 84 miners died in accidents in South Africa. This represents a massive reduction in fatalities over 20 years, down from 615 in 1993. South Africa’s Minister of Mining Ngoako Ramatlhodi stated that this is the lowest figure for fatalities in the history of the industry. The figure has been falling steadily since at least 2009 (when 168 miners died) and is, according to government, due to the rigorous application of Section 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act.

    Other observers disagree. AngloGold chairman and former governor of the South African Reserve Bank Tito Mboweni has argued that the state had adopted a ‘sledgehammer approach’ and that it was ‘regulating the industry to death’.

    The argument is that the enforcement of South Africa’s mining safety regulations has done the industry massive – and unnecessary – harm. It offers an ambiguous example to the rest of the continent.

    Mining is a notoriously dangerous industry. It is no coincidence that in Roman times, it was the hapless slaves who were used for underground work. No sensible Roman citizen would dream of taking on such an unpleasant, unrewarding and, above all, hazardous job. Claustrophobia, heat and the danger of accidents – with fire, flood, explosions rockfalls, cave-ins, gas, and, of course, human error as the most common perils – have always been a central feature of the industry.

    In today’s world, this makes mine safety an intensely political issue. Modern democratic states have the responsibility of overseeing the safety of miners through the enforcement of regulations. But mine owners naturally want to maximise their investment by ensuring work is done as quickly as possible to extract as much of the wealth in the ground as they possibly can.

    The argument is that the enforcement of South Africa’s mining safety regulations has done the industry massive – and unnecessary – harm

    Everywhere – though especially in developing countries, including the mining jurisdictions of sub-Saharan Africa – there’s a difficult balance between enforcing safety and facilitating productivity. It is far from clear whether the appropriate balance has been achieved across much of the continent.

    The controversy regarding the application of Section 54 in South Africa’s arsenal of mining legislation illustrates the dilemma.

    The regulation gives the state’s 300-odd inspectors the right to stop operations on any mine where they believe conditions endanger the health, safety or, indeed, lives of miners. Immediately prior to 2012, the Department of Mineral Resources worked hard to step up the monitoring and evaluation of these issues.

    In 2012/13 it carried out 421 audits and 8 632 inspections, and ordered repeated stoppage orders, where a whole or part of a mine was forced to cease activity while potentially dangerous conditions were rectified.

    In February 2012, AngloGold Ashanti told the media that it had ‘lost’ – in other words, been unable to mine – an estimated 73 000 ounces of gold as a result of Section 54 stoppages enforced by the department’s inspectors. However, gold mining in South Africa had not been as rigorously policed as the platinum sector.

    Anglo American Platinum experienced 81 stoppages in 2011, up from 36 in 2010. By some estimates, the mining sector in South Africa ‘lost’ US$500 million through imposed safety stoppages in 2011/12.

    Section 54 seems particularly heavy-handed given that government inspectors could have used the much lighter touch of Section 55, which allows inspectors to simply order mine management to rectify safety issues and does not require a general work stoppage.

    During its 140-year history, South Africa’s mining industry has had a pretty horrific safety record. It has the unfortunate, though historically accurate, reputation of being founded on the ruthless exploitation of politically powerless migrant workers drawn from all around Southern Africa.

    These comprised the backbone of a labourintensive model whereby a small number of white artisans oversaw a mass of low-paid and unskilled black workers. Shift bosses were paid bonus rates based on output while ordinary miners received only a fixed salary.

    Thus the way work underground actually happened tended to be coercive. And the situation was maintained by a regulatory skills bar that, among its many discriminatory provisions, prevented black miners acquiring mining apprenticeships or blasting licences.

    Isolated in single-sex hostels, these workers were expected to ‘return home’ at the end of their contracts. Historically, the enormous deep-level gold mining industry, on which South Africa’s modern economy is founded, could be seen as a giant machine that sucked in millions of rural Africans, only to spit them out with scant reward at the end.

    The industry was notorious for its fatalities. In 1960, historian Jack Simons estimated that 36 000 men had died in South Africa’s mines since 1900.

    Mining companies in the country have long since put this overtly ruthless approach behind them. Reform, driven by trade unions, public pressure and (most likely) their own consciences, go back many decades with the first universal safety regulations in South Africa being adopted as long ago as 1911.

    From the late 1970s, ‘liberal’ mining capital deliberately sought to ameliorate the work and social conditions on the gold mines in South Africa.

    However, as late as 1993, the number of deaths experienced annually on South African mines had fallen only from about 800 per year to just more than 600.

    It must also be remembered that there were many injuries for every fatality. Ramatlhodi puts the figure, prior to 1994, at 18 000 per year. No matter what the annual numbers are, the point is that the South African government (with its trade union allies, among which is the National Union of Mineworkers) is intensely aware of this weight of history.

    The post-1994 democratic dispensation brought a new focus to issues around mining safety in the country. But while there were many piecemeal improvements, it took several years to achieve a comprehensive approach.

    ‘As a result of intense scrutiny over the last decade, safety in South African mines has made some progress, albeit far too slowly,’ says Stephen Burrow, sales director at Sturrock & Robson, owners of HSE Solutions.

    ‘For instance, mine-shaft ventilation has progressed and collision avoidance has also moved forward but we still see far too many instances of respiratory- and hearing-related incidents. These are basic risks and their solutions are neither high tech nor terribly expensive. While the industry continues, however, to drive costs down, including high-performance PPE [personal protection equipment] spend, they will continue to be a blemish on the industry.’

    The Mine Health and Safety Act was amended in 1996 to give government inspectors more power. It was only in 2003, however, that industry responded the way government wanted. That year, industry ‘stakeholders’ – including employers, unions and government – got together to set milestones in health and safety. The proclaimed objective was to achieve ‘zero harm’ by 2013.

    This somewhat ambiguous phrase was open to interpretation, with some seeing it as achieving the safety standards experienced in the developed world, while others saw it as a promise to strive for a zero-accident situation within a decade.

    When mining companies complained about stoppages in 2012, then mining minister Susan Shabangu argued that the industry ‘value[s] profits more than lives’.

    The employers insisted they had long accepted that ‘a safe mine was a productive mine’. They also said, in the words of Anglo’s Mark Cutifani, that ’95% of safety stoppages [at AngloGold] are initiated by management in a self-regulatory manner’.

    The point about these voluntary stoppages is that they target specific problems and do not affect activities elsewhere in the operation. They are also much shorter than the general government-ordered processes, lasting only as long as it takes to sort out a particular problem. As a result, the impact on productivity is much reduced.

    The crack-down came at a time when the industry was under a multitude of pressures, including rising regulated prices (labour and electricity), uncertainties about governance (BEE and mining licences), labour unrest and sliding commodity prices.

    In the face of all these pressures, investment has faltered. There have been no new shafts sunk in the gold sector for more than a decade. The improvements in its safety record have occurred in a declining industry. In South Africa, hard-rock mining with its enormous depths and pressures has become a one-off.

    The deepest South African gold mines (TauTona and Mponeng, both on the West Rand) operate at depths of more than 4 km. The world’s seven deepest mines are all Witwatersrand complex gold mines. At these depths, operations are subjected to small seismic events every day.

    Modern democratic states have the responsibility for overseeing the safety of miners through the enforcement of regulations

    These are not conditions found anywhere else in the world, let alone Africa. It’s no coincidence that of South Africa’s 84 mining fatalities in 2014, more than half occurred in gold mining. Figures for formal mining operations elsewhere on the continent are much lower.

    In Zambia’s copper industry, for instance, the 12 fatalities experienced in 2013 were considered scandalous.

    Mine safety is a prominent political issue in Zambia, with the late Michael Sata elected President in 2011 on a ticket that included a promise to reform. There is no doubt room for improvement; 217 miners died in Zambia between 2001 and 2011. Last year, its government directed its Mines Safety Department to ‘step up’ its supervisory mechanisms to curb mine accidents.

    JP Lourens, sales director of Rex Safety & Allied says many sectors of the African mining industry ‘have not yet reached the maturity of established mining operations in other countries. This presents a great opportunity to learn from both the shortfalls and successes of mine safety gained in the more developed operations worldwide.

    ‘By conducting diligent risk assessments, evaluating appropriate solutions, establishing optimum spend and implementing sound safety practices, these emerging mines can significantly reduce the risk of serious accidents and fatalities.’

    The question posed for African countries is whether to adopt similar mechanisms to South Africa’s Section 54 and part of the reason is the ambiguity of the country’s experience.

    Did its mining fatality rate fall because of the Section 54 closures? Could the outcome have been achieved through ‘softer’ measures (Section 55 perhaps)? And, critically, what role did these events play in the ongoing decline of the South African gold mining industry?

    There may be no definitive answers to these questions. For that reason, mine safety in places such as Zambia may remain more of a rhetorical commitment – as it has been in the past – than an actual programme.

    By David Christianson
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages