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How to make gold mining silicosis-free - City Press

Sunday, 20 March 2016

South Africa’s gold mining industry is the foundation on which the country’s economic wealth has been built for more than a century. As the industry has matured, it has had to go ever deeper underground to recover the precious metal, the extraction of which still employs and supports hundreds of thousands of people, directly and indirectly, in the industries and communities that continue to rely on its existence.

While the working environment has improved in recent years, as greater use has been made of technology, and improvements in ventilation and cooling practices have been achieved, the working conditions of more than 120 000 mine workers employed in the industry remain demanding.

Working at depths of up to 4km below the surface presents a unique set of health and safety challenges, ranging from accidents and high levels of noise, to exposure to heat and dust. That is why our mine managers are mandated to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of employees above any other operational issue. We encourage all employees to do the same.

Gains made in South Africa in this area in recent times have set the standard for the mining industry worldwide, and have led to a significant improvement in the sector’s health and safety outcomes. Improved knowledge, experience and technology, along with heightened standards and greater commitment by all parties, have seen improving trends in extractive industries all over the world.

But we also have to deal with the legacy of an industry that has been in existence for more than 100 years, over which time practices and regulations have evolved. This legacy includes many former mine workers suffering from silicosis, an occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust.

Six companies – African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Gold – have united to form the occupational lung disease working group to seek a sustainable and fair solution to dealing with the problem.

Of those companies, Anglo American no longer has interests in gold mining, while African Rainbow Minerals no longer operates any gold mines.

The working group has been talking to the legal representatives of the former mine workers who have contracted occupational lung diseases, and who have filed the current class action.

While the mining companies will defend the legal claims made against them, protracted litigation is not in the interests of any of the parties. One part of the proposed solution would be to establish a legacy fund that will supplement the statutory compensation to which mine workers who have contracted silicosis are entitled to from the state, and which some have already received.

The sector is also contributing financial and human resources to assist the state in repairing its administration of the existing compensation system for those who have contracted silicosis.

This will help in expediting payments to those who are entitled to them. The group is also engaging with government on the proposal to transfer current and future employees to the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act compensation system that currently deals with occupational health and safety issues other than occupational lung disease in the mining industry.

The act pays significantly better compensation than the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act system, through which mine workers with occupational lung disease must currently claim compensation.

While there rests a fiduciary obligation on company managements to vigorously defend the legal challenge they face, it is also within their remit to find a solution that could provide a mutually acceptable outcome for all parties concerned.

From our perspective, the solution must be fair to former, current and future employees who contract silicosis, but must also be sustainable for the gold sector as a whole, which is already under severe pressure from rising costs and sharply lower productivity.

The issue is also wider than pure compensation. The companies have not only committed to the prevention of future cases of silicosis, as well as the detection and treatment of current ones, but have invested significant resources to ensure that these commitments are realised.

Modern underground mines manage respirable crystalline silica at source through the implementation of technologies and engineering controls such as real-time dust monitoring; the fitting of water mist sprays at dust sources; dust management controls on footwalls and internal tips; and the installation of manually controlled water sprays in all working areas.

Measures such as centralised blasting, after transporting all workers from the working face to the surface, are also helpful in preventing peak dust exposures. Employees are provided with personal protective equipment to further reduce exposure and all receive regular medical examinations to ensure early detection.

Since silicosis predisposes an individual to the development of pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), as does HIV, the companies provide comprehensive healthcare services to employees, including regular screening and treatment of TB, in line with World Health Organisation protocols. They also provide comprehensive education and care, including antiretroviral treatment, for HIV.

All these measures were aimed at assisting the industry to reach the key standards set in 2003 by the Mine Health and Safety Council on underground dust incidence. The targets included an aspiration that there should be no new cases of silicosis among individuals not exposed to silica dust prior to 2008. As far as we are aware, there have been no such diagnoses. It may take on average 20 years of exposure before silicosis may be detected.

The dust-incidence goals were further tightened by the council in 2014, and we are working now to achieve the new targets in the set timeframe. As the occupational lung disease working group, we are also committed to engaging with everyone involved in this matter, with the aim of agreeing on a fair and sustainable solution as soon as possible.

Whatever the legal processes, our doors are always open.

Mike Schmidt, CEO African Rainbow Minerals; Andile Sangqu, CEO Anglo American SA; Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan, CEO AngloGold Ashanti; Nick Holland, CEO Gold Fields; Peter Steenkamp, CEO Harmony; and Neal Froneman, CEO Sibanye.

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