/ 22 November 2013

Every death is one too many

Every Death Is One Too Many
Every death is one too many (Photo Archive)

Pwc's latest report on the mining sector — SA Mine — notes that companies continue to focus priority attention on creating a safe working environment for all staff, regardless of the commodity. Government statistics show that safety is improving, while annual reports indicate increased levels of investment in safety, says the report.

Jaco Engelbrecht, the managing director of Legasys Compliance and Training Solutions, cites the Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate's latest report, presented to Parliament in September, as showing the number of fatalities in 2012 was the lowest recorded level yet; from 123 in 2011 to 112.

The inspectorate's report also showed a year-on-year drop in the fatality rate for every million hours worked, adds Engelbrecht. The department noted that 2014 must focus on accidents caused by fall of material, manual handling as well as drowning, among others, he observes.

Yet, the gold sector is most under pressure to trim accidents. Engelbrecht says the report, which covered April 2012 to March 2013, showed that, of the 112 mining fatalities last year, 51 were on the gold mines, 28 on platinum mines, and 11 on coal mines. There were 1 478 injuries on gold mines, 1 360 on platinum mines, and 267 on coal mines, he adds.

Digging deeper
Engelbrecht notes that gold is the most risky ore to mine as it is deep, even under normal circumstances, and does not have a nice and even ore line like platinum.

According to the department of minerals and energy, South Africa produces 10% of the world's gold, and has 40% of the world's known resources. Yet, an estimated third of the world's unmined gold is still underground and is increasingly difficult to exploit as they are at great depth, and of fairly low-grade quality.

Engelbrecht says the push to dig out deeper gold will not lead to more accidents. He explains there is a minimum standard for mine safety, set by legislation, which means no mining can happen unless the standards are met, barring an exemption from the department.

"This is unlikely to happen if the safety and health of workers will be compromised, and the Tripartite Safety Council will certainly have something to say about it if it does, not to mention the unions."

Stewart Bailey, senior VP for investor relations and group communications at AngloGold Ashanti, says while greater depth would suggest greater hazard in theory, the reality is that as mines go deeper, safety has improved.

This, says Bailey, is most likely due to innovation around safety. "As these mines go inexorably deeper, we are working to make a quantum change to mining techniques to provide a commensurate improvement to safety."

Bailey says safety is the company's most important consideration. "South Africa's ultra-deep, labour intensive gold mines present a very unique set of challenges by dint of their sheer depth and scale."

Technological advances
While the root cause varies, accidents happen because of a failure in leadership, says Engelbrecht. He says, in many cases, supervisors and assistant managers have little understanding of the criminal consequences they face if a lack of compliance with the law causes an accident.

Engelbrecht notes there is much scope in the Mine Health and Safety Act to hold senior management liable for accidents. He adds legal and awareness training among mine management is the starting point to eliminate accidents, and staff must go through health and safety induction and training.

"Knowledge is power and if you understand the hazards to which you are exposed to and how to deal with them, you can take care of your own safety."

Legislation requires risk assessment, which must lead to risk reduction, which must lead to safe work procedures, which must lead to risk based training and risk-based monitoring, says Engelbrecht. If something goes awry or changes, the risk must again be assessed to determine what can be done.

Over the past decade, new technology has been introduced, and investigation techniques (to get to the root cause of accidents) have improved, says Bailey.

In addition, mine plans have been changed, shaft pillars removed from production schedules to reduce risk and innovations implemented across mining areas.

A new reef-boring technology is also been developed thanks to the initial impetus of the Technology Innovation Consortium, says Bailey.

"The technology would enable us to mine safely, on a continuous basis, allowing us to exploit reefs that were simply not viable using traditional mining techniques, and also to operate at greater depths."

Once deployed in an entire production system, the technology should significantly reduce seismic risk, improve safety and eliminate mining dilution, all of which will have a string of positive knock-on effects for the company and its many stakeholders, says Bailey.

Although improvements are encouraging, the sector is "well aware that a single death is one too many, and we have redoubled our efforts to find new ways to create a safer workforce," says Bailey.

This article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G's supplements editorial team