The Mine Health and Safety Amendment Act, which has been law for almost a year, makes industry chief executives and their managers criminally liable if found guilty of causing serious injuries or deaths.
No one has been penalised in terms of the act as the Department of Mineral Resources is still to gazette new administrative fine guidelines before this can happen.
Chief executives and their managers were targeted by the law, as they have significant power in determining the emphasis placed on safety. However, given the weak state of the South African justice system the amendment is unlikely to have much teeth.
The poor track record of both the Department of Mineral Resources and the Justice Department in securing court rulings related to health and safety cases is evident by the fact that in the past eight years only one company was found to be negligent – Northam Platinum.
The Northam case relates to the death of nine mineworkers at its Northam mine in Limpopo in September 2004 after they breathed in noxious gases produced by an underground fire. In July 2006, a Thabazimbi magistrate ruled that Northam’s negligence had contributed to the deaths. However, no prosecution of the company or its officials followed from that judgment.
Since January 2002, there has been no other finding of negligence, despite the fact that more than 1 800 people have died in the mining industry, including 165 workers who died last year and 171 deaths in 2008.
Maybe the best way to implement health and safety laws in South Africa would be to have a body that oversees all industrial health and safety laws and regulations covering dangerous industries.
This body could focus on health and safety, including prosecutions, and leave the Department of Justice to focus on other civil and criminal matters. Only when people are jailed will the Mine Health and Safety Amendment Act be taken seriously.
Another element of the amendment is that mines that are found not to comply with health and safety laws will be fined R1 million, up from a fine of R200 000 previously. There is also the option for the officials concerned to face five years of imprisonment. For major mining companies a fine of R1m is small change. A better way to determine a fine should be as a percentage of mining revenue.
Tougher fines would make shareholders sit up and that will result in pressure being placed on executives and managers.
Already, mining companies are losing production because of safety shutdowns – onerous fines will add to the pressure for local mines to achieve zero harm.
Source: Business Report