Hilary Joffe Columnist
Miners at South Deep gold mine wear protective gear as they start their shift. Picture: SUPPLIED
Miners at South Deep gold mine wear protective gear as they start their shift. Picture: SUPPLIED

As the lockdown shifts down a level, SA's mining industry is gearing up to get more workers back to work and expand safe production, while also leveraging its resources to support mining communities.

But the gradual reopening of the industry that the government has enabled has prompted grumbling by mining trade unions. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union was in court this week to try to force the government to publish and impose tougher health regulations on the industry, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) complained this week that many companies are not complying with health and safety requirements.

The Minerals Council SA emphasised this week that it is not in any way averse to the regulation of workplaces in terms of Covid-19 directives and regulations by the department of mineral resources & energy.

In terms of a directive issued by the department when it gave the industry the go-ahead to ramp up some operations to 50% of capacity, mines must rigorously screen all employees, including contractors, for Covid-19 before they can enter the mine and must test employees showing symptoms.

They must also ensure adequate social distancing and provide quarantine facilities for employees with symptoms of the virus, and must provide appropriate personal protective equipment.

The mining industry, which employs about 450,000 people, has so far had just nine cases of the virus — compared, for instance, to the eight cases at one of SA's large banking groups. None were in the mining operations themselves.

At a briefing this week, the Minerals Council and large mining companies outlined the detailed programmes that have been put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, in terms of a standard operating procedure that is updated as knowledge of the virus advances.

Workers have to be tested so we know everybody is safe.
Livhuwani Mammburu, National Union of Mineworkers spokesperson

Mining companies have had to innovate to reach the workers, who are required to return to work in phases, some of them from rural areas in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, as well as to monitor workers' health and ensure hygienic workplaces. Companies such as Gold Fields and Harmony have developed cellphone apps to contact workers and monitor for symptoms. Innovations include walk-through sanitisers that spray workers coming on shift from head to toe, and thermal scanners.

Miners are screened before they return to the mine and again before each shift; they wear protective gear on the buses the mines provide to transport them back to work, and face masks, plastic visors and gloves at work, at least when they are near other miners.

Until now only coal mines that supply Eskom and Sasol have been producing, at up to 50% capacity, along with some smelters and processing plants. The level 4 regulations provide for coal and open-cast mines and surface operations to go up to 100% production, and underground operations to 50%.

Once deep-level mining restarts in level 4, the mines will demarcate how close to each other workers can stand in the “cages” (lifts) that transport them underground, and limit the number in each cage to 30% less than before, said Gold Fields' Sven Lunsche.

But the NUM is worried, national spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu said in an interview. Companies are screening workers but don't want to test them unless they have symptoms. “We are saying if workers go back to work, they have to be tested so we know everybody is safe,” he said.

The regulations also say workers must be provided with transport to work and most companies were not complying, he said. Social distancing was impossible if workers were going underground in a cage.

In Numbers: 450,000

The number of people the mining industry employs

The union wants the health workers working for the mining companies to be regularly tested for the virus and be issued with fitness certificates: “We don't want to be tested by someone with the virus.” He said the NUM's national executive council will meet soon to decide the way forward.

Minerals Council spokesperson Charmane Russell said: “We don't believe there is any ambiguity in the regulations in respect to screening and testing regulations. Companies, as advised by the Minerals Council and the [department], are following the [National Institute for Communicable Diseases] protocols that provide for screening in the first instance, followed by testing where indicated.”

She said all mining companies will apply a risk-based approach to social distancing. In most instances maintaining a distance of more than 1.5m in a cage will not be possible, but companies have implemented a series of actions to mitigate the risk.

There are very specific measures in place to protect health-care workers when in contact with workers, and mines will follow health department guidelines on this, Russell said.

The mines have the advantage that they have long had facilities to test and treat workers for TB and HIV and can easily add Covid-19 screening and testing to this. Large mines have also historically had their own extensive health-care facilities — some of which they are now putting at the disposal of provincial health authorities.

AngloGold Ashanti said this week it has made a 270-bed hospital in Gauteng and a 300-bed hospital in the North West available to these provinces to use as isolation and treatment facilities. It has also partnered with Sasol and Imperial to get sanitiser in bulk to several public hospitals. Sibanye and Harmony have converted old hostels into quarantine facilities, should they be needed.