Mine disaster pushes safety to top of political agenda

This week’s Orkney mine accident comes on the eve of the report of a judicial commission on mine safety, reports Eddie Koch

The accident at the Vaal Reefs Mine near Orkney, which killed up to 100 workers on Wednesday night — the biggest underground disaster in more than a decade — is set to push health and safety in the mining industry to the top of the country’s political agenda.

President Nelson Mandela, himself a former mineworker and honorary president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), on Thursday expressed anger at the accident. “It is a very shocking affair — but I would like to reserve comment until the facts have become clear.”

Mandela said Cyril Ramaphosa, chairman of the Constitutional Assembly and former NUM general secretary, had been briefed on the tragedy. The accident highlighted the need for safety reform in the industry, added Marcel Golding, the union’s erstwhile assistant general secretary, who now heads up a parliamentary committee on mineral and energy affairs.

Golding said it was not possible to identify the exact cause at this stage. The disaster happened just days before the report of the Leon Commission, an inquiry which makes far-reaching recommendations for improved health and safety on the mines, was due to be submitted to government.

The disaster is the biggest in the mining industry since a fire at the Kinross mine near Secunda killed 177 workers in 1986 and is the first major mining accident since the new government, which includes a number of former mineworkers and mine union officials in senior positions, was elected last year.

Annual wage talks between the union and the Chamber of Mines are set to begin in June and are likely to be dominated by health and safety demands. “We are pushing for the workers’ right to elect health and safety stewards who can participate (in the management of mine dangers) and their right to refuse dangerous work,” said a union

The union also wants more access to information regarding working conditions on the mines for its members and improved training and education around health and safety conditions, especially those that prevail underground in deep-level gold mines.

The NUM on Thursday lambasted Mineral and Energy Affairs Minister Pik Botha for his statement that the Vaal Reefs mine disaster was the result of “human error”.

‘It concerns us that the minister appears to be pre-empting an investigation by already deciding the reason for the accident,” said a union representative. “What this disaster shows is that the entire health and safety system on the mines needs to be reviewed instead of blaming human error.”

It was joined by the mainly white Mine Workers Union, which demanded immediate implementation of the Leon Commission’s proposals to improve safety conditions, and an independent investigation into the accident.

A statement issued early on Thursday by the mine said a locomotive and carriage fell from 56 level, some

1 700m below surface, on to the lift cage, which was full of night-shift workers, causing the cage’s rope to snap. “The cage then plunged more than 500m to the bottom of the shaft, some 2 300m below surface.”

Botha said human error was probably the cause of the accident. “It is clear in this accident that the human factor must have played a role on the basis of what is known at this stage. The cause cannot be attributed to a natural, unforeseen event.”

“The locomotive could not have moved as it did, had it been properly controlled. The driver is alive so he must have either jumped out of the locomotive or in any event was not in it.”

The Chamber of Mines and its members expressed shock over the accident. Its president, Alan Munro, said in a statement the chamber was saddened by the tragic loss of

“We grieve with the families and friends of miners who died and extend to them our sincerest condolences in this time of extreme sorrow.”

NUM president James Motlatsi and general secretary Kgalema Montlanthe were both underground inspecting the scene of the disaster on Thursday morning. They were due to hold a press conference in Klerksdorp later in the day.

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