THE statistics on Safety-related stoppages at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), and for the mining industry in general, make for uneasy reading.
In the case of Amplats, there were 32 safety-related stoppages at its mines in the fourth quarter of the calendar year. That means that every third day, one of the company’s shafts lay idle.
Either the company’s mines are inordinately unsafe, or bureaucratic intervention has gone into zealous overdrive.
Section 54 is a provision contained in the Health and Safety Amendment Act that gives the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) the power to bring a mine to a halt while it investigates the problem, or remedial action is taken on the mine. Why the surge in these mandatory Section 54 stoppages?
According to David Msiza, the DMR’s Chief Inspector of Mines, a Section 54 is often served for reasons other than fatalities. For instance, repeat unsafe practices underground can be penalised with a stoppage; but so can “an incident”.
“Our objective is to attract investment,” says Msiza. “But if you can’t mine safely, you shouldn’t mine at all,” he says, capturing the difficulty of the compromise.
What’s needed is a human touch in assessing culpability for an incident or fatality. Did the company take all measures to protect a ‘victim’ of an underground incident or fatality? At what point does the responsibility lie with the individual? No matter how well framed the legislation may be, answering that question has to have cogent, sentient, judgment behind it.
From an industry perspective, investing in mining safety more urgently would go a long way with the DMR. Msiza says that with respect to accidents involving LHDs or locos or hoppers, technology exists that gives drivers the proximity of miners. “Some mines are applying it,” says Msiza. “But others are dragging their feet because of the cost implications.”
Msiza’s position has the support of moral force. He’s trying to save lives and doesn’t have profits on his mind the way mining companies do. Says Msiza: “About 80% of fatalities happen at the big mines even though they have the most resources”.
The voice of organised labour is, of course, a crucial vote in finding a sensible solution to the spate of stoppages on our mines; after all, jobs are at stake. One important issue is that miners are chasing productivity targets that may lead them to unsafe practices and cut corners; the kind of incentive that NUM agrees to in wage talks.