Mine Safety still poor – Opinion

Safety improvements to slow

The recent accident that claimed six lives at Aquarius Platinum and Anglo Platinum’s Marikana mine in the North West again highlighted how poor the mining industry’s safety really is.

The six people that died at the Marikana mine due to a fall of ground were employees of mining contractor Murray & Roberts Cementation.

The number of people dying in the mining sector remains very high. The sector’s level of safety continues to improve but this improvement is far too slow to achieve the 2013 safety goal set in 2003.

Industry roleplayers, the state and trade unions are aiming to reduce mine deaths to “international benchmarks” of one death for every 33 million hours worked by December 2013. Far from eliminating fatalities, such a safety level would have resulted in 33 people dying last year.

Mine Safety performance so far

Last year there was one death for close on 7 million hours worked.

For the industry target of one death for every 33 million hours to be achieved by December 2013 there needs to be a drastic 80 percent improvement in safety in the sector between 2009 and 2013.

Looking across the industry as a whole there are no signs of drastic action aimed at achieving this. An 80 percent improvement in safety over four years requires a night and day change.

By July 5, 60 people had died in the mining industry this year, down by 29 percent when compared with 84 mine deaths at the same point last year. For the whole of last year 165 people died in mining.

Safety at Aquarius – What went wrong?

In an industry characterised by poor safety, Aquarius had one of the better mining records compared with its peers.

However, something seems to have gone quite wrong. Just five days before the Marikana accident, Aquarius announced that it had reviewed its safety at its Blue Ridge mine in Mpumalanga after two deaths last month. Following the second mine death, the government halted all operations at Blue Ridge for two weeks.

Safety a priority

Greater pressure must be placed on the industry to make health and safety the number one priority.

What will ultimately drive the sector to make safety its top priority over production is a combination of the billions of rand lost due to government-enforced shutdowns after accidents and mine deaths, the proper implementation of mine laws that make chief executives and managers criminally liable if found guilty of causing serious injuries and deaths as well as onerous health and safety fines.

Adding to the production losses for the industry is that the National Union of Mineworkers now holds a day of mourning every time there is a death at a mine.

Better Safety enforcement

Mine safety would also improve if the government applied more resources to the Department of Mineral Resources’ health and safety inspectorate as well as jacking up the Department of Justice’s capacity to prosecute people responsible for negligence leading to injury and death.

The nonsensical nature of the existing fines system is reflected in the presidential mine health and safety audit report of 2008, released last year, which says: “Mines do not want to pay even when they are fined because they see it as an admission of guilt. So the inspectorate, which is seriously stretched for resources, is inundated with piles of files of mines’ legal councils appealing the fines.”

The mining industry earned total income in 2008 of R360 billion, so there is no lack of funds available to end the scourge of poor safety. What is lacking is the will to achieve the 2013 safety goals and ultimately zero harm.

Source: Justin Brown for Business Report

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