The Chamber of Mines’ satisfaction at preliminary government figures showing a 24% decline in deaths on SA mines last year compared with 2009 was rapidly deflated by widespread scepticism about the numbers and a call for greater effort.
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesman Lesiba Seshoka agrees there has been an improvement in safety, but doubts it is as great as 24%, because under reporting occurs. Some mines send seriously injured workers home, because if they don’t die on mine property their deaths do not have to be reported by their employers. He says the latest figures do not include December, so the chamber is “jumping the gun”.
Agency for Social Reconstruction director Philip Frankel, who advises mines on behavioural changes to address safety , says he would not make the same allegations as the NUM about underreporting, but he is also aware of it .
Chamber of Mines health & safety consultant Sietse van der Woude says chamber members are responsible and he doubts companies would falsify figures.
That aside, Frankel says 128 deaths on SA mines last year remains “grossly unacceptable”. Though the country’s performance is better than, say, China’s, it should be comparing itself with other industrialised countries like Canada and Australia, which might have one or two deaths in the mining industry each year.
The chamber has been quick to note the absolute number of deaths is still unacceptable . Not all the data is available yet to enable it to compare the figure to the target industry, labour and government set in 2003 in the tripartite action plan on health and safety. That target is for SA’s fatality frequency rate (deaths per million hours worked) to be in line with international benchmarks by 2013.
Chamber CEO Bheki Sibiya says the goal remains for every mine worker to return home unharmed every day.
Frankel says the original goal of “zero harm” by 2013 will not be achieved at the present rate. Unless the industry addresses the issue that causes 80% of the accidents, namely human behaviour, mine deaths will plateau at 60-70 a year and stay there, he says .
The chamber’s members represent 80% of SA’s mining production. In 2009 69% of fatalities occurred on chamber members’ mines. This year the chamber plans to continue working to change the safety culture on the mines. It wants to adopt research that should help improve safety, and start training 40000 health and safety representatives and union shop stewards with a target of having them qualify by 2013 .
In the longer term, as SA’s gold and platinum mines get deeper, the safety risks will increase. Van der Woude says it is not possible to mine safely below a depth of 3km-4km using current technology.
Does that imply greater use of mechanisation in new mines at the cost of job creation? Not only does mechanisation keep people out of deep, dangerous areas, it also has the advantage of not demanding annual wage increases at levels above inflation . However, the initial investment in the new equipment would be high.
Frankel says that politically it would be completely unacceptable if the industry were to eliminate 350000 jobs in mining, replacing workers with machinery. The investment should not be in technology but in changing behaviour.
Seshoka, though, doesn’t believe new technology necessarily comes at the cost of jobs. He says an analysis of fatality statistics shows that most accidents are caused by rock falls and infrastructure issues, which require mines to invest more in support and better infrastructure.
Van der Woude questions whether better technology would result in job losses . Machines need to be built and maintained, and this creates jobs . When companies consider new mining technology, they are aware of the socio economic implications, namely that new technology may lead to fewer jobs in the industry.
There is still so much mineral potential in SA that as long as the strategy agreed on by government, industry and labour is implemented effectively, jobs will be created, says Van der Woude .