“Zero harm” was widely welcomed as a target by the mining industry. However, despite considerable improvements, mining fatalities remain unacceptably high.
Marelise Van Der Merwe from Daily Maverick asks why.
At the end of 2017, headlines ran announcing that, for the first time in a decade, the mining death toll in South Africa had risen. By March 2018, the death toll for the year had risen to 22. In May it reached over 30.
The spike to 33 followed 13 miners being trapped in Sibanye-Stillwater’s Driefontein mine in Carletonville, Gauteng, after a seismic event. Seven miners died and another six were injured. The following day, reports noted that two more seismic events followed the first.
The next day, Solidarity’s deputy general secretary for occupational health and safety, Paul Mardon, said that, although Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe had not yet released the official health and safety figures for mines in 2017, provisional indications were that at least 86 miners died in South Africa in 2017, up from 73 in 2016, 77 in 2015, and 84 in 2014.
Mining fatalities hit a dramatic high in 1995, with a total death toll of 500, and decreased again over the next ten years to 199 in 2006.
Mining disasters are typically followed by calls for greater attention to miner safety, and in 2003 the target of “zero harm” was widely adopted. While overall fatalities have reduced dramatically, major and stubborn problems remain – and for miners, the work remains hazardous.
“Zero harm” has been widely welcomed by unions and companies alike. In 2012, Anglo American spoke of its own commitment to a “zero harm” target at its Annual General Meeting, which a column in Financial Times described as “achievable”.
“Both [Anglo’s] chairman Sir John Parker and chief executive Cynthia Carroll admitted at its recent annual general meeting [that] it is an ambition that still remains tantalisingly out of reach,” the column read.
“But a 57 percent reduction in fatalities across one of the world’s leading mining companies has been achieved over the past five years, with a particular emphasis placed on tackling unsafe behaviour at its platinum operations, centred in South Africa, that employ 30 000. And as Ms Carroll noted, demonstrating that ‘zero harm is achievable in all parts of the organisation’ remains a key corporate objective.”
The South African Chamber of Mines, meanwhile, states on its website:
“The South African mining industry is committed to the principle of ‘zero harm’, with the goal that every mineworker should return home unharmed every day. The Chamber, in conjunction with mining companies, aims to achieve a world-class safety performance by working in close collaboration with tripartite partners in government and organised labour.”
It adds: “Much has been achieved in recent years, with employers, labour and government working together to protect the safety and health of all mine employees.”
Outside of this, calls for greater attention to health, safety and empowerment have continued – and, as may be expected, spike when there are fatalities. The Mine Health and Safety Council has called for greater engagement between the Department of Mineral Resources and all stakeholders in the mining industry, including mining communities, on issues affecting them.
At the time of the Sibanye-Stillfontein disaster, President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed that the mining charter would be finalised “very soon” and that a deadline had been set, although he did not specify what this deadline was.
After the disaster he added his commiserations over the deaths of the Sibanye miners. “We also offer our best wishes to workers who have been directly or indirectly affected by this disaster, which should move the mining industry and government to jointly find ways to do all we can to protect our nation’s most valuable resource – the workers who are at the heart of our economy,” he said.
“We should spare no cost and no collaboration to ensure that workers are safe, and their families are adequately cared for and compensated when disaster and tragedy strike.”
He added that he hoped investigation into the deaths would identify the causes, which, in turn, could lead to solutions that could help address the unacceptably high death rate in mining in South Africa.
All of which speaks to improvement. It is, however, also startlingly familiar. Data from around the world in general, and South Africa in particular, suggests that safety for miners remains – at least to some extent – a pipe dream. Despite overall improvements in the fatality rate in South Africa throughout the mining sector, dangers have persisted.
Some analysts predicted this. In 2012, an analysis in Daily Maverick noted: “In 2003, representatives of the South African mining industry – employers, labour unions and government – set historic and significant milestones for health and safety to be reached by 2013 – ‘zero harm’ for all employees.
“The CEOs of more than 30 companies determined that 2013 would be the year in which South Africa’s mine safety would be on par with the mine safety in industrialised countries like Canada, the United States (US), Australia and the United Kingdom.
“In an industry better attuned to profits and production, this emphasis on safety is welcome. It is long overdue, but with 2013 looming large and fatalities still a reality of the mining experience in South Africa, ‘zero harm’ appears to be up for creative interpretation.”
The analysis further argued that some of the goals set – because they drew on international standards – did not adequately allow for South Africa’s unique context.
“For Gold Fields, for example, ‘zero harm’ has meant that instead of accepting the risks involved in gold mining as ‘inherent’, employees and managers are schooled into believing that, with the right approach and mentality, mining can be rendered safe.
“However, even as Gold Fields insists their goal of ‘zero harm’ was more than an empty aspiration, but rather an achievable goal, statisticians warn that ‘zero harm’ in the workplace is impossible…
“The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) continues to endorse the policy even as concerned analysts, psychologists and statisticians argue that that there is no such thing as ‘zero harm’ – the elimination of workplace accidents will never be achieved.”
Many of South Africa’s mines, after all, are unusually deep and, therefore, prone to seismic events – making them some of the most dangerous in the world. “South Africa has a chequered record of safety compared with other large industrialised countries, in part because its mines are so deep,” the BBC phrases it.
Fin24, meanwhile, reports that the continued high number of fatalities is at least partly down to a failure to modernise.
“The country [South Africa] has been mined commercially for over a century and many operators still rely on older, labour-intensive mining methods such as hand drilling,” the report reads.
Other factors are at play, too. Worldwide, South Africa is in line with generally typical patterns, though the number of fatalities per country varies. Overall, fatalities have been on the decrease, but this has begun to change in the recent past. The International Council on Mining and Metals noted in 2017 that the mining industry globally had started to decline – both in terms of value and safety.
Historically, the worst offenders worldwide, in terms of mine safety, have been described as countries where profit comes before people. The BBC, citing International Labour Organisation data, has noted that while mining employs just one percent of the world’s workers, it is responsible for eight percent of its fatalities. This, it argued, was part of a “dark industry”.
We know that the majority of mining deaths occur in developing countries, but that even the US saw an average 93 people dying in mining accidents during the period 1991 to 1999, in addition to a staggering average of 21 351 injuries per year. A Geneva-based trade union federation estimates there are 12 000 mining fatalities per year worldwide, and that many go unreported.
Where fatalities had been decreasing prior to the recent spike, the BBC noted, there had been “a few exceptions, like China and Russia”.
Alan Baxter, a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, said this was a function of profit-seeking. China has the world’s largest mining industry, producing 40 percent of the world’s coal and accounting for 80 percent of its related fatalities. “They are maximising revenue,” Baxter said.
This is also significant because it raises the question of whether declining profits may encourage slips in safety standards, as companies increasingly try to keep up in an industry that is inherently unsustainable.
It’s an important question, too, because safety does not always come cheap. Khadija Patel’s earlier analysis in Daily Maverick noted that when “zero harm” was first adopted, although it was widely welcomed, its impact was felt in performance.
“In May this year, Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mineral Resources, hailed the safety crackdown on the South African mining industry – a crackdown that has included a surge in inspections, and stoppages for safety violations – pointing out that the number of fatalities was reduced to three in April, down from an average of 11 or more a month,” Patel wrote at the time.
“The crackdown has, however, been felt in output. Data for February  indicates that production of platinum group metals (PGMs) fell 47,6 percent while gold output fell 11,5 percent in volume terms in February. Total mineral production was down 14,5 percent compared with the same month last year. And not all mining companies are happy to prioritise safety over production.”
Both the NUM and Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have raised concerns over this issue following the Sibanye-Stilwater disaster.
“We believe, as AMCU, that management pushed the boundaries in terms of production and profit,” said AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa.
“Because the first seismic event was huge, they were supposed to withdraw all the workers and direct them to a waiting place and give it one or two hours.
“I asked the management why they didn’t do it. They said the distance [between the seismic event sites] was 2,1 kilometres … But after the 3,5 event happened they rushed to withdraw the proto team from the rescue area. You can see clearly the mineworkers’ lives are very cheap,” Mathunjwe said.
Meanwhile, NUM spokesman Livhuwani Mammburu, has raised the dual issue of poor pay for miners, and mines prioritising profits over safety. “Miners were encouraged to go into dangerous areas by being offered bonuses to do so,” Mammburu said.
Yet it’s not a zero-sum game. Each time there is a disaster in mining, the losses are not only to human life. Reversals in safety trends can result in investor concerns over mine safety and prompt increased shaft inspections and costly production stoppages. This means that, in the long term, prioritising safety and well-being for mineworkers can have longer-term benefits for production, not only for the miners.
When mining-related deaths in South Africa increased for the first time in nearly a decade in 2017, Anglo American Platinum CEO Chris Griffith, who heads the Zero Harm Forum, expressed his concern. He said the mining sector, government and labour needed to “accelerate initiatives that could improve this unacceptable [safety] performance”.
Perhaps the key question is not only how these deaths are occurring, but why. Is it that South African mines are unusually dangerous? Is it, as the unions say, that miners are being encouraged to go into more dangerous areas in already hazardous, deep mines?
Is it that outdated methods and equipment are being used to do this already hazardous work? Is it that miners are so poorly paid that they’ll do anything to earn a little more? Is it that despite the best intentions of the policies and principles, these aren’t being carried out on the ground? Or is it a perfect storm?
Until we find those answers, there may be improvements, but “zero harm” will remain unattainable. And we will continue to say, with an increasing sense of déjà vu, that something must be done.