In the five years leading up to 2018, Sibanye had “industry leading safety rates”, with Sibanye’s Southern African mines achieving 3.4-million fatality free shifts in late 2017, according to Sibanye’s head of investor relations, James Wellsted. There were also no fatalities for four months until early February this year.
But, earlier this month, Wellsted said that the 21 fatalities this year were “a significant departure from our historic safety performance since the company formed in 2013”. The fatalities at the Driefontein operations on May 3 were caused by a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, and five miners died from heat exhaustion at the Kloof Ikamva operation on June 11.
“There is no indication that any of the operational controls had failed, and we are confident in the quality and efficacy of our seismic monitoring systems. We still need to fully determine the mechanism of failure so we can prevent events like this from occurring again,” he said.
The director of the Wits Seismic Research Centre, Musa Manzi, told the Sowetan that Sibanye-Stillwater was not to blame for mine workers deaths.
“Currently mines use sensors to sense if there are seismic activities. However, these are not always accurate; they can be 10m off and cannot predict if there will be an earthquake,” Manzi said. “There would be people dying every day if mines were not doing what they could with the technology available.”
The spokesperson for the Minerals Council, Charmane Russell, said the council was very concerned about the spate of accidents in the industry and in the “regression of hard-won safety improvements over the last two decades”. But the council had confidence in Sibanye’s investigations into the mining accidents.
Besides Sibanye’s internal investigations, it has held two safety summits and has formed an independent task team to tackle the causes of the fatalities, which Manzi will play a part in.
Mine health and safety lawyer Kate Collier said Sibanye’s actions were in line with the Mine Health and Safety Act. Mining rights could be withdrawn or suspended if the rights holder did not comply with it, she added.
According to the Act, inspectors can check on a mining operation at any time. Collier said the inspector has the power to halt all operations if it appeared that employees were exposed to harm.
In terms of the Act, any fatality must be internally investigated, and the investigation must start within 10 days of the incident. The investigation itself must not take more than 30 days and must include findings relating to how to avoid a recurrence.
According to Collier, the investigation would look into the causes of an accident, including what systems were in play at the time and the possible failure of personnel or equipment.
But, Wellsted said, “speculation around losing mining licences is unwarranted and unlikely”, adding that the “tragic incidents are currently the subject of a joint investigation with the DMR [department of mineral resources]”.