The mining industry in South Africa should take a bow. Between 1993 and 2019, the industry experienced a 92% overall decline in the number of fatalities! And, in 2019, South Africa’s mining industry recorded the lowest number of fatalities since record-keeping began more than a century ago!
These remarkable figures have emerged in a Health and Safety in Mining position paper published by Minerals Council South Africa in July 2020. They’re only two of many impressive achievements. According to the paper, injuries similarly declined from a rate of 7,14 per million hours in 1993 to 2,68 per million hours in 2019, an improvement of 66%. In terms of health, the total number of reported occupational diseases declined by 66% between 2008 and 2019 and by 23% between 2017 and 2018.
These statistics are especially impressive when one considers that the mining industry poses several health challenges. While noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a health risk in almost all areas of mining, occupational lung diseases (OLD) – particularly silicosis – are a major issue in the gold and coal sectors. These diseases are classified as compensable occupational health illnesses.
Both pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/Aids are significant public health threats in South Africa. The paper reveals that an estimated 80% of the country’s population is infected with latent TB while 1% develops active TB every year. These rates are among the highest in the world. Where mine employees develop TB in the presence of exposure to silica dust, it also becomes an occupational illness.
To address these – and many other – health threats in the mining industry, the Minerals Council has launched a multitude of programmes, initiatives and collaborative bodies that were established with the aspiration of zero harm in mind. These include the establishment of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) in 1996 and the formation of the CEO Zero Harm Forum in 2012. It is premised on the belief that the industry’s CEOs need to lead by example, drive health and safety initiatives in the industry, and address key challenges to accelerate the industry’s journey to zero harm.
The CEO Zero Harm Forum has subsequently developed Khumbul’ekhaya (which means “remember home”), a health and safety initiative that acknowledges that fatalities have the greatest impact on loved ones at home. It encourages mine employees and their managers to bear these loved ones in mind as they go about their day-to-day tasks.
The efforts of these initiatives – and many others too – have culminated in the reduction in fatalities. This reduction is significant for thousands of South Africans; the paper reveals that the local mining industry now employs approximately half a million people, each of whom, it is estimated, supports between five and 10 people.
“The loss of one life therefore carries with it an economic impact that can be felt as much as tenfold, and causes grief among the departed’s loved ones that can be neither tallied nor consoled,” the Council points out.
It also stresses that, while it has achieved great success, the Council will not be resting on its laurels. “As we all know, improvements and successes cannot be cause for complacency. On the contrary, industry efforts, as spearheaded by the Minerals Council, not only need to be maintained, they must also be intensified. In everything we do, the health and safety of the half a million people who work in the mining industry needs to be prioritised. It is our collective responsibility – as industry, government and organised labour – that they continually remember home and that they always reach it,” it urges.
Everyone getting home safely. Now there’s a really nice thought.