Efforts are being made to protect miners against tuberculosis, which claims more lives among miners than mine accidents. A national plan to have all miners tested and to ensure that those who are infected are treated is under way.
Thousands of miners have a lung disease caused by mine dust, called silicosis, which increases their chances of getting TB. There are also many cases of former miners who are infected with TB. While the focus is on fatalities caused by mine accidents, the occupational disease TB is regarded as a silent killer.
National Union of Mineworkers national chairperson on health and safety Peter Bailey estimated that for every “one fatal accident, five workers die from occupational disease”.
He spoke of the thousands former miners who succumb to their occupational disease at their rural homes. “The government has estimated that the TB infection (of miners) is among the highest in the world,” Bailey said.
He said an increase in miners succumbing to silicosis is related to their previous exposure to high levels of silica dust, not current exposures. “This implies that only when silica dust exposure levels are not exceeded will silicosis be eliminated, thus achieving milestones.
“The focus should be on dust control measures as per the Mine Health and Safety Council milestones that aim to eradicate silicosis. “Ideally there should not be any new cases of silicosis by 2013 among employees recruited after 2008 who had never been exposed to silica dust,” Bailey said.
A national plan to have all miners tested and to ensure that those who are infected are treated is under way. David Mametja of the National TB programme SA said the Department of Health was worried that the high prevalence of TB among miners held the nation back in the fight against the disease.
There are about 600,000 miners in SA. About 150,000 are contract workers who do not have medical benefits. The gold mining sector employs about 150,000 people alone.
“There are 3,000 to 7,000 per 100,000 miners with TB in the country. But even the lowest estimate, five percent, is well above the figure of one percent for the general population,” he said.
Mametja said the department would target gold mines in the national plan for TB and HIV launched in December. The aim is to have all South Africans screened and then tested at least once a year. “But more frequently for high-risk groups, including mine workers,” Mametja said.
Llang Maama-Maime, the national TB programme manager in the Ministry of Health in Lesotho, said 33,000 miners from Lesotho were working in SA. “In 2011 there were 135 repatriations mainly from TB. Some of these miners are not registered and cannot get health services. Concerns are that once these miners are treated, they run back to the mines, formally or informally…” Maama-Maime said.
Chamber of Mines head of health Thuthula Balfour-Kaipa said there was a drive to get miners tested, though unions had previously feared miners would be discriminated against.” But in 2010 about 267,000 miners were tested. The gold mining sector accounted for only 30% of this. The sector needs to up the figures.”