Picture: 123RF/jarous
Picture: 123RF/jarous

Mine safety in SA has undergone a vast and sustained improvement over the past two decades. But a high number of deaths in the first half of this year has compelled the industry to ask if this is a blip on the chart, or the beginning of a deteriorating trend spurred on by a high frequency of earth tremors, operational laxity, or just plain greed.

Mine deaths dropped from 270 in 2003 to 73 in 2016, according to the department of mineral resources (DMR). The improvement has been steady, except for 2009, the only year in which the number increased.

Though fewer people are employed in mining today, the fatality frequency rate too — the number of deaths compared with the millions of hours worked — has improved vastly. It dropped from 0.27 in 2003 to 0.09 in 2016. In the gold mining sector, which is responsible for the majority of incidents, the frequency rate dropped from 0.38 to 0.14 over this period.

Last year, the death toll jumped for the first time since 2009, with 88 deaths recorded. This caused consternation in the industry. But now 2018 is on track to top last year’s death toll.

As at June 26, 47 fatalities had been reported compared with 38 for the same period in 2017. "This translates to a 24% increase year on year," says Ayanda Shezi, head of communications at the DMR.

The mining company with the most fatalities is Sibanye-Stillwater, with 21. Harmony Gold had six, Sasol Mining three and AngloGold Ashanti two.

You often find that mines with the best production rates and figures often have the best safety record
Leigh McMaster

An international comparison is not really possible, says the Minerals Council SA (formerly the Chamber of Mines). Few countries report mine health and safety statistics as comprehensively as SA. Those that do, like the US and Australia, cannot compare as their mines operate differently, particularly because they are not as deep as SA’s.

While there is, of course, concern over the spike in fatalities, a strong case can be made that frequency rates are down, says Leigh McMaster, specialist in behavioural change at the Minerals Council.

The numbers have spiked due to a spate of multiple fatalities — where several people are killed in one incident — which is unusual.

"There is obviously a lot of unhappiness, and rightly so," McMaster says. "But if you focus on the hardline stats, the picture is not that negative. If you put your humanitarian hat on, it’s really terrible."

Council spokesperson Charmane Russell says the incidents, especially those resulting in multiple fatalities, are of huge concern. "A great deal of introspection is required, and not just at company level," she says.

However, Arnold van Graan, mining analyst at Nedbank Corporate & Investment Banking, says that if you look at fatalities over the longer term, the statistics show a real improvement in safety standards thanks to a huge effort to reduce the risk of injuries. This involved training, safety systems and mine design, among other interventions.

"It came from a high base, and reduced significantly ... but the industry seems to have reached a plateau in terms of safety statistics," says Van Graan.

Shezi says the major cause of accidents this year has been gravity and seismic-induced falls of ground, followed by transportation systems and machinery.

Seismic activity in gold mines is related to their depth. "When a fall of ground occurs, it might be because of a natural earthquake, or pressure built up in the rock mass, or because of mining operations," says Russell.

McMaster says SA has been a leader in research in seismicity and at one stage reduced fatal seismic incidents by 83%. But the risk around seismic activity has increased again. "The areas we are mining are getting older and older and have been operating for 60 or 70 years."

These mines are also deep. Ultra-deep-level mining, at 3,000m and more underground, is unheard of elsewhere in the world. Eight of the 10 deepest mines in the world are in SA and all are gold mines.

This, paired with an increase in seismic activity, may be contributing to the incidents. Of the 21 incidents at Sibanye-Stillwater this year, 19 occurred in its gold division and two in the platinum division.

What it means

Mine deaths dropped from 270 in 2003 to 73 in 2016, but jumped last year and are up again this year

Platinum mines don’t have as many seismic-related incidents, as the deepest ones are 2,000m or so, says McMaster. It’s much harder to do deep-level mining with platinum, as the ore bodies present relatively higher temperatures at shallower depths. Even so, SA is home to the deepest platinum mines in the world.

It’s not always easy to know whether seismic activity underground is naturally occurring, or caused by mining operations.

A 2011 report by seismologist Martin Brandt, "Seismic Hazard in SA", finds SA’s seismic activity to be moderate by world standards.

"Most seismicity originates from the gold mining districts of the Witwatersrand Basin," Brandt writes. He says one of the most difficult tasks in monitoring earthquakes in SA is to distinguish between natural earthquakes and tremors and blasts from mines.

In the past, seismic activity was a major factor in underground mining deaths, Russell says. But interventions helped greatly. A task force was set up and a lot of research was done, which led to new outcomes for how mines operate. As a result, she says, deaths related to seismic activity dropped from 48 in 2003 to 14 last year. This time, again, the next steps are to take another look at the fundamental research with the aim of removing people from areas of hazard, she says.

However, unions have accused Sibanye-Stillwater of pushing for production over safety.

Paul Mardon, deputy general-secretary for health & safety at Solidarity, is very concerned about the incidents at Sibanye-Stillwater.

"There’s definitely a major problem there," he says, adding that the mine was trying to "hide behind seismic activity".

Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union, says he has always wondered why other companies would have left the mines Sibanye has acquired if they were still easy pickings. "The infrastructure is old, the mines are deeper. For investors it is not about safety," Mathunjwa says. "According to capitalism, investment is a cost." Conversations at investment roadshows have demonstrated that investors care only about production levels and not safety, he says.

The mining house has regularly denied that it places production above safety.

Russell adds that many of Sibanye’s operations were not acquired this year, yet the company was the best performer in terms of health and safety last year.

So what has changed? Possibly seismic incidents. But certainly Sibanye’s acquisition of Stillwater, a Colorado mining company, has left the company with sizeable debt to service. At the end of 2017 its net debt was R23bn, and questions are being asked about whether this has put pressure on its mines to produce.

"Production and safety are not mutually exclusive," McMaster says. "You often find that mines with the best production rates and figures have the best safety record."

Incidents, and especially fatalities, have a financial cost that mines would rather avoid.

"That’s the difference from a decade ago, when a fatality would have had little impact on the bottom line," says Van Graan. "Now there’s a big impact. The section is stopped during the investigation, which could take anything from a few days to a few weeks."

There are also days of mourning when production is halted. "There are normally about 21 shifts in a month, and a mine makes its profit in the last three or so shifts — so one day’s lost production can have quite an impact." Van Graan says.

If the increase in fatalities continues, particularly at Sibanye-Stillwater, it can go one of two ways, McMaster says.

The organisation can decide to stop its own operations, as was the case with Anglo American in 2008 when a run of fatalities at its Rustenburg operations caused it to shut down several shafts for several days. Glencore, McMaster says, imposes its own safety stoppages when it perceives health and safety risks.

Empowered by section 54 of the Mine Health & Safety Act, the DMR also has the power to stop operations and can impose a wider blanket stoppage on a mine’s operations if it sees fit to do so.

For now, industry-wide introspection continues.

This will require collaboration between unions and government until one truly understands the underlying problems, says Russell.

For Sibanye-Stillwater, and the industry in general, improving on gains made in health and safety in recent years will become increasingly difficult. "To improve safety statistics materially from current levels could be quite tough and costly. It will carry an economic impact," says Van Graan. "If we don’t have some sort of technological breakthrough in deep-level underground gold mines, these will continue to experience declining output."