Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

The state issued a strict directive on health measures for mines to follow as they restart operations after a three-week lockdown, potentially derailing a legal challenge by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) to force general Covid-19 regulations on the industry.

Amcu, which represents 100,000 mineworkers in a sector that employs 450,000 people, brought an urgent application to the labour court this week in Johannesburg to compel the state to regulate the mechanisms set up to protect employees from coronavirus.

The directive appears to deal with many of the union’s concerns but has not been gazetted. The court has set down April 29 for the start of the case.

On Thursday, the department of mineral resources & energy issued the directive to all mining companies outlining the measures they have to take in terms of the Mine Health and Safety Act, which demands that “every employer must, as far as reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a safe working environment”.

“The start-up procedures must also address measures to be taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19, as well as actions to provide a safe working environment, especially following the prolonged closure of some operations,” it said. The directive told mines to “systematically phase in workers” returning to their jobs.

“In line with the directive, mining companies must, in consultation with labour unions in the respective operations, develop the start-up procedure, and provide a copy to the department, before ramp-up of operations,” it said.

The directive could be regarded as a pre-emptive step by the department ahead of the court case, setting out the obligations it expects companies to adhere to in terms of the act.

Amcu has opted to back off from an urgent case it brought against the department, the council and others to rescind the exemptions granted to 129 mining companies to restart limited mining after amendments to lockdown regulations on April 16. Those amendments allow for mines to return to 50% of capacity during the lockdown, which is scheduled to expire at the end of April, but which is likely to be phased out rather than suddenly terminated because of high rates of infection.

The amendments overtook the case lodged by Amcu in the South Gauteng High Court, prompting Amcu to take it off the urgent roll for a later court date. The Minerals Council SA argued that the amendments render Amcu’s arguments moot.

The labour case, unlike the first demand for the exemptions to be rescinded, does not pose a threat to mining companies returning to production. The exemptions were largely granted to companies with open pit mines or surface operations, smelters and refineries, where social distancing and the provision of safety gear are more easily managed.

The council had warned that if the lockdown for underground mines were prolonged beyond the original 21 days, the repercussions could be severe, with up to 45,000 people losing their jobs and some mines closing permanently.

In the directive, the department said the measures it outlined are in keeping with the April 16 amendments to the disaster management regulations. They include:

  • Rigorous screening of all employees, including contractors, before accessing the mine;
  • Testing of employees with symptoms of Covid-19;
  • Adequate social distancing;
  • Provision of quarantine facilities for employees with symptoms  of Covid-19;
  • The establishment and maintenance of a personal hygiene programme; and 
  • Provision of appropriate personal protective equipment, including face masks.

The council said it has developed a 10-point plan that covers all these aspects and which has been drawn up in line with recommendations by the World Health Organisation and the departments of mineral resources and health and others.

Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe said on April 16 that mines had already been conducting extensive testing of employees returning from leave and that the Covid-19 testing will form part of it as more than 200,000 people resume work.

seccombea@businesslive.co.za

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