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South African Parliament Passes Mine Safety Reform; Year-long Safety Audit Still Held-up

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1 December, 2008

Mine safety in South Africa was enhanced on 21 November when the country’s Parliament passed amendments to the Mine Health and Safety law. The legislation must now go to President Kgalema Motlanthe for his signature before becoming effective.

But South Africa’s government is still withholding a presidential audit on health and safety in the mining industry. And ICEM’s largest affiliate in Africa wants the report brought into the open.

South Africa President, Kgalema Motlanthe

At its National Executive Meeting (NEC) in Vereeniging, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called for the immediate release of the national audit. “The way the report has been held up gives suspicion that it may contain controversial safety details. We believe that the audit will reveal the true status of safety standards in the various mining companies,” said NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni.

After months-long lobbying to derail the safety reform bill by the Chamber of Mines, Parliament passed the measure ten days ago. A memorandum attached to the final version of the bill called it “premised on the principle that the responsibility for health and safety lies with the employers.”

The reform measure includes insistence that mine safety investigations be carried out within ten days of occurrence, and that the reports are issued within 30 days. The reform also contains a criminal liability clause in which company executives can face a five-fold increase in fines and penalties if convicted of responsibility in health and safety accidents or deaths.

Although NUM applauded passage of the stricter safety enforcement, it insists that the Mbeki safety audit must be forthcoming immediately. The audit was commissioned by former president Thabo Mbeki in October 2007, after 3,200 workers were trapped underground at Harmony Gold's Elandsrand mine. Miraculously, they were all rescued. The Mbeki national safety report, despite at least two pronouncements that it would be issued, has still has not been made public.

NUM Gen. Sec. Frans Beleni

"The NEC noted with serious concern the escalating number of workers who perish in the line of duty,” said the NUM’s Baleni. “Over 180 mineworkers have died (this year) and thousands others have been injured, while thousands more suffer from respiratory diseases," he added. He called on the government to "beef up inspectors” to ensure that companies operating mines and building sites adhere to proper safety measures."

Following the Elandsrand accident 14 months ago, the NUM called for an independent safety audit of mines and facilities. The national audit instead was carried out by the inspectorate of the Mines and Energy Department.

More recently, the NUM presented an impact assessment report to a discussion forum on health risks to miners. The NUM proved that the blasting process produces large amounts of dust in both air and water. According to the NUM, this dust causes most miners to suffer for respiratory diseases, such as pulmonary tuberculosis and silicosis, as well as asbestos-related, skin and eye diseases, acute diarrhoea or noise-induced hearing loss.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to mount in the country’s mines. Deaths in recent weeks have included: two miners killed at AngloGold Ashanti’s TauTona mine near Carltonville, on 27 and 31 September; a miner killed at Harmony’s Elandsrand operation in a cave-in; a miner killed at Gold Fields’ Driefontain mine following an earth tremor on 16 October; a fatality caused by electrocution from underground machinery at AngloCoal’s Greenside Colliery, 19 October; a Northam Platinum employee who died in an underground industrial accident near Thabazimbi on 11 November; and a miner employed by DeBeers at its Finsch mine in the Northern Cape died on 17 November.