Mining is hard work

In the Newman shaft, drillers work in tunnels that are about 1.5m high. It is pitch dark, save for the light from their headlamps. (AFP)

In the Newman shaft, drillers work in tunnels that are about 1.5m high. It is pitch dark, save for the light from their headlamps. (AFP)

At Marikana, Lonmin's Newman shaft slopes down an incline to a depth of 396m. In June I visited the shaft to learn about working conditions.

Platinum ore is extracted by drilling and blasting. A rock driller bores a hole about 1.5m deep into the rock, explosives are inserted and detonated. The ore-bearing shattered rock is then processed to extract the metal.

In the Newman shaft, drillers work in tunnels that are about 1.5m high. It is pitch dark, save for the light from their headlamps. The temperature can reach 45°C and workers are at risk of heat stroke. They wear sleeveless vests and their bodies are smeared with black dirt.

The floor is wet because water is sprayed on the drills to keep them cool and reduce dust.

The roof of the tunnel is supported by iron rods. Every morning, the integrity of the tunnel has to be inspected to ensure it is safe.

In the tunnel I visited there was a rift in the roof – a bad sign.

Deafening
The work is back-breaking. The drillers have to squat and the noise is deafening.

Miners in the Newman shaft use pneumatic drills and they have to use their own strength to keep the drills in place and force them into the rock.

Pneumatic drills can weigh up to 45kg and are outdated. For the most part they have been replaced by hydraulic ones, which are much safer. Powered by water under pressure, hydraulic drills are held in place mechanically and the pressure to drill into the rock face is ­provided by the drill itself.

The drill operator can control drill speed and pressure and there is also less noise and dust.

A mine drilling expert, who was not authorised to comment officially, said pneumatic drills posed a greater danger to the miners. He said wrist and joint injuries, as well as hearing loss and respiratory problems, were common.

 
Heidi Swart

Heidi Swart

Heidi Swart has a background in social work and social research. She made a career change to journalism in 2010 when she was accepted for a cadetship at Independent Newspapers. This involved a year of in-house training with the Cape Argus and Independent's investigations unit, under the auspices of veteran investigator Ivor Powell. Following this, she worked at the Cape Community Newspapers for six months, a branch of Independent Newspapers. She completed a six-month internship at the Mail & Guardian's centre for investigative journalism, amaBhungane. She is currently the Eugene Saldanha Fellow for social justice reporting. Read more from Heidi Swart

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