“Only” 77 people died in South African mine accidents last year compared with 84 the previous year, but observers warn that this does not mean the country’s mines are safe.
“It is noteworthy that 2015 saw the lowest ever fatalities recorded in the mining sector,” Minister of Mineral Resources Mosebenzi Zwane announced at the end of January. “This is encouraging, and an indication that our combined efforts as stakeholders are bearing fruit.”
During the same speech, the minister failed to mention that the number of accidents had increased by 500 in the past 12 months.
In the past five years, there have been at least eight accidents a day in mines, injuring more than 15 000 people.
But the department of mineral resources has focused almost entirely on lagging indicators – the number of deaths – to determine that safety in mines has improved.
According to human rights lawyer Richard Spoor, the department needs broader measurements to determine mine safety.
“Besides the fact that mines are mostly left to their own devices to determine what is the reasonable level of safety, there is no standard to test these levels against,” Spoor said. “You can’t say that this mine could have avoided an incident or accident because there is no status quo or benchmark to test the mine’s conduct against.”
Zwane’s comments came against the backdrop of the collapse of a section of Vantage Gold’s Lily Mine in Mpumalanga, which initially trapped 78 miners underground. Three weeks later, three workers are still stuck in a buried container.
Two mineworkers at the Lily Mine who wanted to remain anonymous said they knew when starting the job that working for a mine would never be 100% safe, but they never thought there would be a collapse.
“On Friday ([February 5], I went to work as usual. Going down at six in the morning, I passed the container, said ‘hi’ to my friend and went down. Nothing was out of the ordinary,” said one miner, who has worked at the mine for more than five years.
Sitting in a beerhall at midday, with mineworkers milling about as the rescue attempts continued on the other side of the small village of Low’s Creek, another miner added that there was no warning at all when the crown pillar of the mine gave way.
“When such a thing happens, you know you are supposed to follow safety drills, but I was in shock for a while. We have only had one other small incident since I started working here. Nothing could have prepared us for this,” he added.
The 34-year-old said that they were working on the 13th and 12th shafts.
“We had no idea what was happening on the surface. I heard a rumble and then saw dust,” he said.
Within an hour, the group of 75 was rescued. But three weeks later the container that all of them had passed on that fateful day, and in which Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Mabuza and Solomon Nyarenda are trapped, is still underground.
This story is similar to that of Impala Platinum (Implats) where the company had boasted of maintaining a “very good safety record, having operated for two years without a fatal accident”.
Then towards the end of last year, the Implats Rustenburg mine had two separate and unrelated fatal accidents in shaft 14. One miner was killed in November and another in December. These accidents were followed by a fire in January, in which four miners died.
According to a Solidarity union researcher, Leigh McMaster, statistics using leading indicators such as “deaths per million hours worked” do not focus on particular risks, such as the causes of fires in a shaft with safety systems, including instantaneous and continuous gas monitoring, hot work permits and flame-retardant conveyor belts.
“Companies have gone for extended periods without recording any injuries and merely jump to a fatality on a particular day.
“It would be very difficult for the [mineral resources department] to measure safety on leading indicators as there are no agreed standards yet on the use and measurement of leading indicators,” McMaster said.
Msetyenzwa Ndlabi, a mineworker at Implats, said the death of the four was the worst tragedy he had experienced in 28 years of working in a mine. “The four men who died had to travel from the 21st shaft to the 17th. They were found huddled together with their rescue packs depleted,” he said.
Johan Theron, the Implats spokesperson, said the mine is still trying to find out what happened that night and therefore it is “extremely difficult and unwise to speculate on what may have happened”.
Miners who were present on the fatal day say a fire was raging inside the mine but, despite this, they were still sent underground. They believe mine management should have foreseen that sending anyone into the mine that night would have been risky.
Another mineworker who had worked the night shift said he and others knew it would be dangerous to go underground that night.
“Some of the men didn’t want to go in; it was evident that there was a problem. But what are you going to do if the man with the power says you must?” asked the 33-year-old.
He added that he tells his children every day that they should never be in his position. “No child of mine will ever work underground,” he vowed.
Joseph Mathunjwa, the president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), said the mine had sent the miners to their deaths.
“There was fire detected at level 19, yet management told workers to report for duty at the upper level. Subsequent to that the smoke intensified and they were instructed to vacate the lower ground. Due to the thickness of the smoke, the four workers could not find their way back to the refuge bay. Their rescue packs could not sustain them. They eventually died of smoke inhalation.
“It goes without saying that the mine was negligent and they just murdered those workers. How do you detect that there is smoke, yet tell workers they should go underground?” he asked.
Theron said the top section of shaft 14 and the bottom section operate separately but are under one general manager.
“We have not been able to interrogate all the relevant information or evidence. At this stage, we can only infer that a fire started in the deeper bottom section around the blasting time on Friday the 22nd of January [at about 5pm],” he said.
He added that, after the blast, miners were allowed into the top section but the lower section shift was delayed. “Bottom line: we should never have underground conveyor fires with all the safety systems we have installed,” he said.
Besides the extensive legislation on safety, Spoor said the only punitive measures that can be taken against companies when accidents happen are section 54 notices, which are aimed at shutting down a mine.
“The main reason mines are focusing some resources on safety is because no one wants to be closed down for a few weeks. They will lose money when a shaft is not operational,” he said.
Since August last year, the Lonmin mine, about 60km from Implats in the North West Province, has been issued with 23 section 54 notices for a fatality and other safety concerns. In October, 55-year-old father of five Zilindile Ndumela, a locomotive driver at the mine’s Rowland shaft, was killed in a mudslide there.
“He was just buried there after the mud rush. There were three men with him that night. They tried to get him out from underneath the mud but they couldn’t do much,” a Lonmin mineworker said. Ndumela had worked for Lonmin for more than 10 years.
Lonmin has apparently completed its investigation and the next step is to hold a commission.
Said the miner: “I won’t lie and say the company safety policy has not improved, but the department would have much higher incident and accident numbers if they really knew what was happening in the mines.
“No one can lie about deaths, but accidents are happening all the time and some are even hidden from the shop stewards, and hospital cards are just written ‘sick’ instead of ‘mine accident’,” said the mineworker.
Lonmin spokesperson Sue Vey said that, for every fatal accident or near-miss, the department is alerted and the mine conducts an inquiry in the hope of preventing any future accident.
David van Wyk of the Bench Marks Foundation is also concerned that the department is not using broader indicators to measure accidents and mine safety.
“From 2010 to 2015, the industry was plagued with major strikes, which shut down operations, especially in platinum, for significant parts of almost every one of those years – either staggered as the strikes spread from one operation to another and from one company to another, or, as was the case in 2014, platinum was shut down for almost half the year by Amcu. Obviously there would be fewer accidents and fatalities.”
He added that the level of safety, especially in light of the lower number of mine fatalities reported, only tells a small part of the full story.
Ayanda Shezi, spokesperson for the department of mineral resources, said the department cannot comment on the investigations, which are still under way. “The department must refrain from making any statement that could compromise the integrity and ojectivity of such investigations.”