A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

The mantra after a fatal mining accident has always been a rather hand-wringing "it shouldn’t have happened". It is estimated that 88 miners died in accidents on SA’s mines last year. It was an unhappy regression for the industry: fatalities had fallen from 615 in 1993, to 200 in 2007, to 73 in 2016.

This year hasn’t started well either. The Chamber of Mines has confirmed that 14 mineworkers have died since the beginning of 2018.

It could have been even worse: in January 955 workers were trapped in Sibanye’s Beatrix mine in Welkom for two nights. In the end, they were all rescued alive.

The chamber spends more money on safety programmes than on any other initiative: R250m last year on research into seismic activity associated with deep-level mining, and another R40m on other safety-related research.

While the chamber could not pinpoint the exact reasons behind the spike in fatalities, trade unions have blamed increased pressure on workers as one of the causes.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (Amcu) say workers have been forced to compromise on safety as they perform functions that would ordinarily require more manpower than is currently available.

NUM’s health and safety chairman Peter Bailey tells the Financial Mail that since mass retrenchments hit the industry in 2014, mineworkers affiliated to the union say they have had to work long hours without rest, while the violation of safety standards has become the norm.

"When those jobs were shed, the expectation was that the same or better output would be achieved with a limited manpower resource," he says. "As a result, there are people working more than 40 hours overtime in a week and they do not get compensated for it."

Lerato Tsele, acting head of safety at the chamber, says her institution supports the call for a new inquiry into safety at this point.

In the past, similar inquiries made a big difference. In 1995, the Leon Commission into safety on the mines found 69,000 people had died on SA’s mines from 1900 to 1993. The horror of these numbers laid the platform for the "zero harm" approach.

Tsele says the industry has battled to get to the root cause of accidents and a team has been set up to find answers.

"They came up with a cultural transformation framework ... we realised that for us to get to the root causes of accidents we need to eliminate the blame factor," she says.

Workers are facing a double-edged sword, say Bailey and Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa: a dysfunctional department of mineral resources (DMR) has led to a mass exodus of skilled inspectors, leaving mining houses to their own devices.

"We need to deal with this issue of capacity in terms of the inspectorate at the DMR," says Mathunjwa. "The DMR is chaotic, people are leaving right, left and centre and the [former] minister [had] no idea what he [was] doing. Those who have been there for years were overlooked and decided to leave."

There is also a push from the unions for legislation to be reformed to hold mining bosses personally accountable and to have them charged with murder when mineworkers die on the job. The lack of consequences in the industry is the reason the trend will not change, say NUM and Amcu.

What it means:

The Chamber of Mines spends more money on safety programmes than any other objective; fatalities fell by 88% between 1993 and 2016

"There is nothing that scares the CEOs, there is no recourse, because even if people die in large numbers they will still get their fat salaries and bonuses. Why should they care if they lose nothing?" asks Mathunjwa.

Tsele says research is needed into new mining techniques because, unless action is taken to minimise the risks associated with deep-level mining, it could "become humanly impossible to access the ore".

"We need to look at how we can train people and have creative systems that will let people keep their jobs but still be able to reach the ore without endangering people’s lives," she says.

As much as accidents have fallen dramatically, the numbers are still far off the "zero harm" goals that mining giants committed to at a 2016 safety summit.

Last year the Institute of Race Relations released a study saying that, "given the great depths at which mining companies may have to operate (sometimes 4km beneath the ground) and the frequency of seismic events, it is difficult in practice to ‘eliminate’ all injuries and deaths".

Perhaps — but the unions say many deaths could have been prevented had bosses done more to prioritise safety.

Amcu has urged government to set up a commission to explore what parts ever-deeper mining and increasing mechanisation have played in the rise in fatalities.

What makes it tricky is that some accidents on the mines, such as transport accidents, take place above ground.

The cost is measured not only in human lives. Mining houses incur financial losses because the law dictates that they halt production after an accident.

"There is nothing that scares the CEOs ... even if people die in large numbers they will still get their fat salaries and bonuses — Joseph Mathunjwa"