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.
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Pneumatic drills can weigh up to 45kg and are outdated. For the most part they have been replaced by hydraulic ones, which are much safer.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.