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25 Feb 2008 10:43
An explosion that ripped through a ferromanganese smelter near Durban on Sunday and claimed the lives of five people sparked protests by workers as a Labour Department inquiry was about to start on Monday morning.
A blast and subsequent fire at the Assmang ferromanganese smelter in Cato Ridge—about 60km from Durban—claimed the life of one person, but a further four have died from wounds they sustained. Another five are still being treated at hospitals in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
A small group of workers staged a protest outside the Cato Ridge Country Club on Monday morning where a Labour Department inquiry into workers’ exposure to poisonous fumes was due to begin.
The small group was singing and chanting slogans and had a coffin with brass handles placed at the entrance to the hall where the inquiry was due to be held.
A large group of workers, estimated by one observer to be in excess of 100 workers, was seen gathering at the Assmang plant itself, about 10km from the country club.
Unconfirmed reports said the workers would be marching from the factory to the smelter.
The inquiry is investigating the alleged 40 cases of manganism that have resulted in workers breathing in fumes with airborne manganese particles.
Manganism is acquired by overexposure to airborne manganese and is a disease that affects the sufferer’s central nervous system, leaving him with symptoms very similar to Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS).
Its similarity to MS, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease makes diagnosis difficult.
On Monday, the Labour Department announced that Assmang will be subject to a second inquiry to investigate the cause of Sunday’s explosion.
Departmental spokesperson Zolisa Sigabi said “a full-scale government investigation is under way following yesterday’s [Sunday’s] massive explosion”.
“The inquiry aims to establish the cause of the tragedy, including any possible negligence or flouting of occupational health and safety measures,” she said.
On Sunday, she said: “Labour inspectors who immediately arrived at the scene have in a preliminary report indicated that it is suspected that a water leakage into furnace number six caused the explosion.
She added: “The impact of the explosion resulted in the wall of the control room facing the furnace collapsing, allowing the flames to engulf the entire room. It is alleged that a worker who was alone in the control room monitoring the furnaces at that time got trapped in the fire and was killed at the scene.”
Meanwhile, National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) spokesperson Mziwakhe Hlangani said that the company’s engineers had ordered that the furnace be shut down before the explosion “after it was detected to have a water leakage”.
“We do not know how and why it was operated by the night-shift staff operators, because it was declared unsafe to put it [the furnace] in operation, and we believe drastic steps after thorough investigations should be taken,” Numsa local organiser Siphiwe Ntsele said.
He said it was the second blast in nearly three months. He claimed that a worker had died on December 14 last year in a similar blast.
He said: “Our members have decided that they will not return to work until the Department of Labour has brought in independent experts to investigate whether it is safe to operate the furnaces and that the company abides by international safety standards.”
Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana on Monday condemned the blast and vowed to “pull [out] all stops in getting someone to account for the deaths and injuries” in Sunday’s incident.
Jan Steenkamp, chief executive of African Rainbow Minerals—one of the stakeholders in Assmang—said in a statement: “Management is [at present] meeting with the families of the affected employees, its employees as well as with employee representatives, and with the Department of Labour.
“An investigation has been launched to establish the cause of the explosion, and Assmang will communicate the result of this investigation in due course,” he said.—Sapa
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