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JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Return-to-work protocols at South Deep gold mine have been significantly enhanced to manage the sharp rise in the number of employees testing positive for the coronavirus on return to work after the festive season.
Seven hundred and fifty tests have been carried out over three-and-a-half days, based on an extensive questionnaire, and 120 of the 4 000-employee Gold Fields mine on the West Rand, south west of Johannesburg, near Carletonville, have been quarantined.
“We’ve beefed up the return-to-work protocols significantly,” Gold Fields executive VP and head of the South Africa region for Gold Fields Martin Preece told Mining Weekly in a Zoom interview.
Employees feeling unwell are urged not to return to work and to provide details to a call centre, which puts them in touch with medical staff who can have them tested.
“We’re deeply concerned with the high level of positives, but as we said last year, we’d rather know about cases than not know about cases,” said Preece, adding that the protocols of last year had been “put on steroids”.
“We’re driving a very strong constant awareness campaign internally, on our social media. We use a WhatsApp tool for self-declaration and we’re urging people to do the right thing. I believe the statistics of more people testing positive is telling us that our message is getting through and that people are asking for help,” he said.
Employees with critical medical, travel and behavioural issues are required to undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and remain at home until the outcome of those tests are known. Those with less critical responses are required to see a medical practitioner to ensure that they are not at greater risk than assumed. Those whose responses do not raise concerns are allowed to proceed to work.
“I don’t think we can talk about seeing a different variant, but we are seeing a significant increase in positivity, which is in line with what the rest of the country is seeing,” Preece said.
South Deep currently has four employees in hospital, one of them in intensive care, and has lost two colleagues to Covid in the last two months.
Those off work continue to be remunerated: “We believe it is more important for people not to come back to work so we continue to pay people during this process,” he said.
South Deep management is working closely with organised labour in protecting its workforce against the spread of the pandemic.
Despite Covid, the bulk mechanised underground South Deep last year reported 7% higher overall group year-on-year production of 557 000 oz for the three months to September 30. Production was up to 65 000 oz, with all-in costs at just over $1 000/oz.
“South Deep’s an operation now that’s looking really competitive in our group,” Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland said of the mine, which has one of the world’s largest gold deposits.
“Our organised labour colleagues have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us. They have helped us drive the messages and they have helped to co-develop the approaches we have taken. Saturday morning, with our first people returning after New Year, we were out at the mine from four o’clock. The union chairman, with his branch committee, were there with us. They were sanitising people’s hands and urging people to do the right thing. We’ve got a common objective. We need to get our people through this, healthily and safely, and sustain a business, which is going to sustain our people for many years to come,” said Preece.
On South Africa having a spike in infection while Gold Fields operations in Australia have yet to have a single employee test positive, and those in Peru and Ghana not experiencing the same upsurge, he said much depended on individual and collective self-discipline. "We’ve maybe let our guard down a little bit and we’re going to exercise discipline to arrest this again.
“We’re very confident with the protocols we have at work. We’ve continued with our crews that are sanitising. Most of us that are going to work regularly have now got crocodile hands from all the sanitiser that we keep putting on our hands. Every individual carries a bottle of sanitiser and there are big bulk tanks on surface and underground where people can keep on refilling these. There is an abundance of masks. There’s good discipline at work around sanitising, washing hands, wearing masks and keeping apart.
“We took a decision early December that all our people that can work from home do so. We have put the people who need to be at work on rotation. I work on a rotation with the general manager and we’re not at work at the same time, so that at least there is a core of people who are going to be healthy at a time potentially to keep business continuity going. I’m very comfortable with the discipline that’s being exercised across the board at work,” Preece said.
Production targets were not being revised down as a result of Covid’s upsurge. “One thing we learnt last year is that despite the crisis, we saw the best of our people last year and when they returned, they exceeded our expectations and certainly we’re not in a place yet that we’re going to start putting up a white flag. We’re going to be going for our production targets and I think we’re going to do it by looking after our people and our people are going to look after themselves and help us look after the business,” he added.
Last year, way ahead of any indication of national lockdown, South Deep gold mine started an intensive and focused communication awareness campaign to shield its people from the coronavirus pandemic.
It placed a lot of reliance on leadership across the board, going down to basic family leadership, and put effective communication platforms in place that have stood it in great stead.
South Deep collaborated with startup company A2D24, which has developed two WhatsApp apps for the mine, one to connect with employees directly and the other being the self-declaration tool, which gives people the opportunity to self-declare before coming to work through answering a series of questions relating to own health, the exposures of their families and whether they or members of their families or contacts had attended large gatherings, funerals or been in situations that may heighten their vulnerability to Covid.