Silicosis on the increase among miners

There has been an “alarming” increase over the past year in the deadly dust disease silicosis among workers on South Africa’s gold and platinum mines, MPs heard on Wednesday.

According to figures tabled by the Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate (MHSI) before Parliament’s Minerals and Energy Affairs portfolio committee, mine doctors submitted 1 031 cases of silicosis to the Medical Bureau of Occupational Diseases (MBOD) in 2005.

Last year, the number of cases referred was 1 536—an increase of almost 50%.

Briefing the committee, chief inspector of mines Thabo Gazi told members the increase in silicosis had been “picked up at autopsies”.

Speaking after the briefing, he told the South African Press Association (Sapa) that the increase was worrying.

“Certainly, I’m alarmed. But this is the result coming out of autopsies ... and there is a lag of up to nine years, and it is a reflection of something that has happened in the past.”

Asked if this meant preventative steps taken now would only show results in nine years time, he replied: “Most definitely.
People who were exposed previously, we will continue to pick up those cases for the next number of years.”

Silicosis is a debilitating lung disease caused by the inhalation of microscopic particles of silica dust, which lodge in the alveolar sacs and cause—over time—inflammation and lesions.

Silica dust is produced on mines by drilling, blasting and crushing rock containing the mineral, such as quartzite.

According to the MHSI, former mine workers receive follow-up medical checks for the disease every two years after leaving the industry.

In the past, Gazi said, there had been little focus on health issues in the mining industry, “and that’s a reflection of the problem we’re seeing now”.

Also at Wednesday’s briefing, mine health and safety council head Mthokosizi Zondi told the committee another disease, tuberculosis, continued to plague the mining industry.

“[It’s] a major challenge, and is increasing,” he said.

Figures presented at the briefing show 4 015 cases of tuberculosis were submitted to the MBOD last year, compared to 3 648 cases in 2005.

Zondi said confined underground working conditions and close-quarters hostel accommodation were to blame for the disease’s persistence in the mining sector.

On mine safety, he gave MPs a breakdown of what caused the 200 fatalities in the industry last year.

A total of 28% of fatal accidents were the result of “falls of ground” and rockbursts; a further 28% were caused by “transportation systems and machinery”; and the balance (44%) were labelled “general”, he said.

This included deaths resulting from slipping or falling, and mistakes made while handling material, among other causes.

On the enforcement of safety and health standards, Gazi told the committee that from April this year fines totalling R216 000 had been imposed on the industry by his inspectors for “serious transgressions” of regulations.

He later told Sapa levying fines on the multibillion-rand industry was problematic, given the mines appealed against them and tied his inspectorate up in administrative work.

“It’s an administrative burden, to such a point that inspectors shy away from it,” he said.

He said the R216 000 represented less than 10 fines. - Sapa

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