Eleven fatal mine accidents in eight weeks has thrust the issue of mine safety into the forefront as a major issue – and most of the attention is focused on Gencor, one of the three major mining houses. Two-thirds of the extraordinary spate of serious mining accidents in the last two months have occurred on Gencor-owned mines. In particular, the group’s Ermelo Mine – with three fatal methane gas blasts claiming 51 fives in five years – has one of the poorest safety records in the world. The number of mineworkers killed since April totals 84; more than 56 have been injured. On coal mines, die death toll stands at 51, already more than double last year’s total of 24.
According to research engineer and safety expert Jean Leger of the Technical Advice Group, although methane explosions have always been one of the greatest sources of hazard faced by coal miners, modern technology has been able to control the hazards and explosions are very rare. When 34 miners were killed on April 9 in a methane gas blast which ripped through the Ermelo mine, the mine’s chief executive, Graham Thompson, said they had died within 30m of a cache of self-rescue emergency breathing kits.
Writing in the SA Labour Bulletin, Leger points out that in the Seventies methane explosions were relatively rare events in South African collieries and did not contribute substantially to the overall fatality rate. Altogether 42 miners died in three accidents. But there has been a 400 percent increase in the Eighties; at least 166 miners have dies in methane explosions so far.
Leger said a possible factor in the increase in colliery explosions is that the use of more productive machines has resulted in coal being mined at a faster rate. ”This in turn may have caused methane to be released into the mines at a faster rate, thus becoming a more serious hazard.” Neither the Chamber of Mines nor Gencor has responded to repeated enquiries on the subject this week.
The National Union of Mineworkers has called for a government-appointed commission of enquiry. ”We call on the government to investigate these accidents fully and we believe that the involvement of workers in health and safety matters will have positive results in the industry,” NUM’s Health and Safety Officer, Hazy Sibanyoni, said this week.
The union’s assistant general secretary, Marcel Golding, supported Sibanyoni, noting that at the time of the Kinross disaster last April which left 177 miners dead, the NUM called for a full-scale inquiry into safety measures in the mining industry. ”We pointed out then that safety measures in the mines are lacking and with the number of deaths recently it becomes quite imperative that close scrutiny of mine safety be made.”
Golding said the NUM’s international safety experts are ready to come to South Africa in response to the claim by Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha that there is nothing to hide.
In the past eight weeks:
- Seven miners were killed and three injured in a ground (all at the ‘Cooke Three Shaft of the Randfontein Estates Gold Mine on April 13.
- Five miners were killed and 20 injured in a pressure burst at the Vaal Reefs Gold Mine on April 15.
- Three miners died in a groundfall at Kinross Gold Mine in Evander on April 24.
- Five miners were killed at the Bracken Gold Mine in the Eastern Transvaal on April 28.
In the worst disaster this month, 12 mineworkers were killed and seven injured in a mudslide at the Coalbrook Colliery near Sasolburg in the Orange Free State. Coalbrook was the scene of the largest mine accident in South African history; 435 miners were buried alive when part of the mine collapsed in 1960.
During this month, as well:
- Five miners died and three were slightly injured in an underground pressure burst at the ERPM Gold Mine near Boksburg in the East Rand.
- Two miners were killed at the Navigation Colliery near Middelburg on the same day.
- Three miners were killed at the Matla Colliery in the Eastern Transvaal.
- Seven mineworkers were killed at the Buffels Gold Mine last week.
- On May 25, a miner fell to his death down a 1 000m shaft after an explosion blasted a hole in a cage at Gencor’s Beatrix Gold Mine in the Orange Free State. Twenty-two others were injured.
The death tally on coal mines presently stands at 51, more than doubling last year’s total of 24. The three major accidents in the Ermelo Mine were:
- On April 9 this year, when 34 workers were killed when a methane gas blast ripped through the Ermelo mines.
- In November 1982, when 11 workers died in an explosion.
- In October 1984, when six miners died from carbon dioxide poisoning after a methane explosion.