As it is a hazardous environment in which to work, the mining sector should be prepared for every eventuality by providing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), utilising drug and alcohol testing equipment and providing workmen’s compensation.

The mining sector is undeniably one of the most important industries in South Africa. It contributes R8 to the economy for every R100 produced and employs 2,5 percent of the South African workforce, according to Stats SA.

This sector has an even greater impact in specific provinces, including the North West and Limpopo, which rely heavily on mining as a source of income.

In the first quarter of 2018, mining production in South Africa increased by 3,1 percent, with diamond production, alone, increasing by 42,9 percent.

While the sector has a big impact on the country, it is a hazardous environment. Between February and June 2018, 20 employees at the various southern African operations of the mining company Sibanye-Stillwater lost their lives.

This is close to half of the 45 mining-related deaths reported by June for 2018. The company is the biggest gold miner in South Africa and among the ten largest gold mines globally.

Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman was quoted in an article by Platinum Weekly: “One life lost is one too many. We are appalled by the loss of our employees’ lives at our mines over the past few months. It pains all of us when employees are injured or lose their lives in safety incidents.

“The safety of employees is our primary concern and, if it is not safe to operate, we expect conditions to be fixed before work can resume at the workplace. There is substantial evidence that well-organised workplaces are both safe and productive, and that is our aim.”

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) expressed its concerns, and while Sibanye-Stillwater acknowledged the accidents, the company said that AMCU only wants to hurt its reputation.

Health and safety incidents lead to a loss of productivity and work days. They may also lead to expensive legal costs or damage the company’s reputation. They are, however, often preventable. One precaution that could be taken is providing the employees with the correct PPE.

Most companies already supply the basic PPE including hard hats, safety boots or toe caps, overalls and reflective vests. It is important to ensure that the PPE is correct for the application and fits the employee. There is a variety of hand protection products and safety gloves, for example, and each has a specific function.

Companies should always purchase PPE from a reputable supplier that complies with local and international health and safety standards and can advise clients on the best safety equipment for the particular application.

Additional safety equipment, such as hearing protection, can help prevent injuries that are developed over a long period of time. With hearing protection, it is important to consider the environment in which the employee works. If they are in an isolated, safe area, the standard hearing protection might suffice.

However, if they are surrounded by other miners, vehicles, equipment or machinery, it might be necessary to invest in noise-cancelling hearing protection, which allows employees to hear warning sirens and communicate with each other, while still blocking out noise that exceeds acceptable decibel (dB) levels.

Noise pollution is caused by loud sounds that distress and could possibly harm the hearing of employees. More than a million South Africans have a hearing impairment. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 360-million people, globally, have disabling hearing loss.

This is often caused by either an intense impulse sound, such as an explosion, or continuous exposure to loud sounds, which are generally found in a mine. The mining industry uses heavy equipment that can generate noise levels above 85 dB – the acceptable maximum noise level in the workplace.

The Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) limits the noise exposure in mines to no more than 85 dB. It also states that the hearing of employees, who are exposed to these noises, should not deteriorate by more than ten percent. Equipment also may not exceed a sound pressure level of 110 dB.

Noise pollution can damage the structure of the hair cells in the ear, which could result in hearing loss. This is most often a gradual process. Workers in industries with high levels of noise pollution could experience temporary hearing loss. However, noise pollution can also have non-auditory effects on employees.

It can cause stress, which is linked to high blood pressure and elevated heart rates. Stress can also lead to conflict in the workplace or at home, which can further impact the stress of the employees and potentially lead to substance abuse. Noise pollution has also been associated with some sleeping disorders and deteriorating mental health.

Aside from the physical and mental health risks associated with working in noisy environments, employees subjected to noise pollution might also not respond to health and safety protocol. They might fail to hear warning signs or simply fail to react.

Organisations can reduce noise pollution by checking whether the equipment is operating properly, or reduce the number of employees exposed to the noise and the duration of exposure by rotating personnel.

The level of noise in a mine can be measured with the help of an occupational hygienist certified by the Southern African Institute for Occupational Hygiene (SAIOH). These tests are particularly important when new machinery is introduced, or if the noise levels exceed 105 dB, in which case tests should be conducted every six months.

Employees should be tested regularly for hearing loss if they are exposed to high levels of noise pollution and all staff should be educated on the risks of noise pollution. Free testing apps are available, such as HearScreen developed by hearZA.

The app is free to download and use with a two-minute, game-style test that requires a smartphone and headphones. The results are captured and shared with hearing-loss experts. Employees who fail the hearing test should make an appointment with a certified professional.

Noise is not the only aspect of the mining industry that can cause stress. Runrite Electronics general manager, Justin Goldblatt, points out: “The measurement of stressors in the work environment is a vital part of the health and safety plan. Many companies rely on annual or regular scheduled audits from Occupational Hygiene Approved Inspection Authorities (AIA).

“While this is a legal requirement, the reality is that occupational stressors must be monitored on a continuous basis. There are several common stressors that can be easily measured by safety officers and personnel with the right equipment and some basic knowledge.”

He notes that among these are noise, heat and toxic or flammable gasses. Runrite Electronics stocks the range of Cirrus Research noise-measuring instruments and offers training and aftersales support.

Goldblatt also notes that noise measuring equipment doesn’t have to be expensive or require professional knowledge. He says: “There are several low-cost options recommended by Runrite Electronics that can effectively achieve a continuous monitoring programme.”

These include the Cirrus 310 Sound Level Meter, an entry-level device with integrated average noise levels that allows organisations to ensure noise levels remain below 85 dB, or take corrective action if the noise exceeds the maximum acceptable level. Goldblatt stresses the value of investing in these stress-monitoring devices.

For heat monitoring, Runrite Electronics manufactures the Tempstress, which is based on research from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Gas detection in the mining industry is particularly important. Goldblatt says: “It is important for anyone working in a confined space to monitor for at least the standard four gases common in these environments: hydrogen sulphide (H2S) or sewer gas; carbon monoxide (CO), which is often invisible and odourless; flammables (LEL); and oxygen (O2).”

He adds that many companies fail to invest in the correct equipment for their environments. It is important for companies to also follow risk assessments closely to avoid accidents and be aware of potential gases in the area.

Goldblatt states: “Honeywell Analytics has invested heavily in the research and development of easy-to-use and accurate instruments. Available from Runrite Electronics, Honeywell portable and fixed gas-detection equipment will offer a comprehensive, early-warning system to avoid potentially fatal accidents.”

The latest addition to the range is the Honeywell BW Ultra, which is designed with a simple user interface that aims to keep the user aware of and safe from any hazard.

“Many companies make the mistake of waiting for an audit before taking action to monitor occupational hygiene stressors in their workplaces. By purchasing a basic set of instruments, such as a lux meter, integrating sound-level meter, gas monitor and heat-stress meter, some of the most common risk factors can be found and eliminated without the need for costly audits and consultants,” he explains.

Runrite Electronics offers a Safety Officers Kit with range of equipment tailored to meet the budget and needs of most companies.

While it is important for organisations to protect employees from their environment through PPE and monitoring devices, it is also important for companies to protect employees from each other. Substance abuse among employees places them and their peers at risk.

It is important to have a policy in place to deal with substance abuse in the workplace, and to monitor for any substances that can alter the employee’s ability to perform their work. Policies and procedures for testing for intoxicating substances are particularly important following the decriminalisation of marijuana in South Africa.

“The reality is that employers still want to create a safe work environment. Testing for alcohol has been done for years and the push is now to test for drugs. Alcolizer Technology, which is exclusively supplied in Africa by Runrite Electronics, is on the cutting edge of testing technology for both alcohol and drugs,” says Goldblatt.

He emphasises the importance of transparency in the process. An employee should be able to disclose any substances used in a safe environment to aid trust. There should be clear policies regarding acceptable behaviour.

“Impairment means that an employer is concerned with whether an employee is sober ‘right now’ and not a danger to themselves or others. Employers are not concerned with lifestyle choices, or actions taken over a leave period. They are concerned about whether a staff member is fit for duty,” Goldblatt explains.

Tests should focus on the current state of the employee and not their recreational habits. With the LE5 Drug Tester technology, linear detector arrays and an optical filtering system are used to deliver accurate drug-test results in 90 seconds. Testing saliva during drug tests allows the organisation to establish the immediate presence of a substance.

“Saliva is a fairly non-evasive test protocol and allows for drug testing to take place at any level in the business without the need for specialised test facilities,” Goldblatt says.

“The Drugilizer LE5 is based on the same award-winning technology as the Alcolizer LE5 alcohol tester, which has a unique modular-based calibration system that reduces downtime on site. Its fast, accurate and robust design has made the Alcolizer LE5 the first choice in the mining industry across Australia and Africa for several years,” he concludes.

Unfortunately, with all the precautionary measures, employees can still be injured on duty. It is, therefore, essential for mining companies to provide sufficient workmen’s compensation to its employees. While other industries register for workmen’s compensation through the Department of Labour, the mining industry can register with Rand Mutual Assurance (RMA).

With the correct PPE and protocols in place to ensure that employees act safely and are fit to do their jobs, mining companies might have an opportunity to achieve that ever-evasive goal of “zero harm”. It starts with covering the basics.

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