By Sharyn Macnamara
Safety initiatives adopted and implemented by captains of the mining industry in South Africa are gaining traction towards the goal of zero harm on South African mines. African Mining looks at how this has been achieved and where to from here.
It was announced on 1 February 2023 by the Minerals Council South Africa and again at the recent Mining Indaba by minister of Mineral Resources and Energy South Africa, honourable Gwede Mantashe, that the South African mining industry had recorded its best year of safety ever during 2022.
Honourable minister Mantashe said in his opening address at the conference, “A safe mining industry is a productive industry. The year 2022 saw the lowest number of fatalities recorded in the history of South African mining… Our aim is to achieve ‘Zero Harm’ in the industry,” further pointing out that there have been zero mine disasters recorded in the past three years, referring to incidents with fatalities of five and above. 1
The Minerals Council South Africa delved deeper in its statement on 1 February 2, pointing out that the industry had seen its first fatality-free January in 2023 – marking a full calendar month without a death. A record 39 consecutive days (as of 31 January 2023) without a fatality was highlighted. This was noted as a significant milestone in the quest for Zero Harm, as the industry has averaged nearly five deaths annually in the month of January since 2018 – this normally being a ‘tougher than usual’ month for safety as the mines start-up after the year-end break. “This is the first time in South Africa’s mining history that this has occurred. Although a lot of effort went into our start-up campaigns, there’s a lot that still must be done,” said Japie Fullard, chair of the Minerals Council’s CEO Zero Harm Forum.
The mining industry reported 49 fatalities in 2022, a significant reduction from 74 fatalities the year before and a new record low for South Africa. According to the Minerals Council the largest contribution to the improved safety performance in 2022 was made by the 70% decrease in fall-of-ground (FOG) fatalities, which has historically been a leading cause of deaths.
In February and into early March, four fatalities were recorded in the industry compared to seven in the same period a year earlier. As Fullard notes, the focus and work on safety is like sweeping water up a hill. There can be no relaxation of focus on safety in a complex ecosystem of many, and often unforeseen, events and factors. Although Zero Harm is the goal and ‘vigilance’ is continual – reiterated consistently by stakeholders – in the mining space, the reality is that mining involves nature and human beings, and there is therefore always the possibility of unforeseen incidents. This article looks at what the industry focus has been in managing these unforeseen incidents to the best of its ability and what is firmly within the control of the stakeholders; and how they have been faring in efforts to manage an ecosystem that, the world-over, is highly complex.
How has this step-change been achieved?
The Minerals Council emphasised that a number of initiatives across the industry together with a very focused collaborative drive by all stakeholders – from the Minerals Council South Africa and its 76 members – including three associations representing hundreds of smaller mines – to the DMRE (Department of Mineral Resources and Energy), organised labour, equipment suppliers and researchers – together with additional vital changes to work culture – have all culminated in achieving better results, which have, in turn, inspired the industry to further drive fatality elimination strategies.
Investment in eliminating FOG-related incidents
The Elimination of Falls of Ground Action Plan (FOGAP) adopted by the Minerals Council board and CEO Zero Harm Forum in July 2021, is considered to be a major contributing factor to the step change in the performance in FOG witnessed last year. In 2022, there were six FOG-related fatalities, which is a 70% reduction from the 20 deaths the year before, and a 92% decline from 76 deaths recorded in 2007. There was also a decline in the number of FOG injuries, which is a positive reflection on the efforts of the industry says the Mineral Council.
The six pillars adopted by the Minerals Council board and its members in the FOGAP are:
- Adoption of leading practices
- Research and development
- Skills Development
- Policy issues
- Enabling zero-harm production, behaviour, culture and operational discipline
- Implementation and monitoring 3
The Mine Health and Safety Council, a tripartite body comprising the Minerals Council South Africa, DMRE and organised labour, has invested R500-million in rock-related research over the past two decades; the Minerals Council has further committed R46-million over five years in its FOGAP; while mining companies have also spent hundreds of millions of rands in innovative technologies and in sponsoring university research.
Among the leading practices adopted by South Africa’s underground mines to prevent FOG incidents which have contributed to a safer mining environment recently are: Permanent meshes held up with bolts in tunnels and working areas; brightly lit working areas so miners can check for dangers rather than just relying on their cap lamps 4; safer ways to remove loose rocks from the roofs and walls of tunnels and working areas, and improved methods to identify loose rocks. 5
“We recognise that this reduction in FOG-related fatalities has been a group effort among employers, organised labour, the DMRE, equipment suppliers and researchers. It’s only through collaboration that we will achieve our target of zero harm,” Fullard emphasised.
David Msiza, chief inspector of mines at the DMRE (Department of Minerals Resources and Energy) also noted on a separate occasion – in a presentation on an “Overview of 2021/22 mine health and safety performance in the country” delivered to surface mining industry association, ASPASA members on 31 January 2022 – that the year 2022 marked 25 years since the introduction of the Mine Health and Safety Act (Act No. 29 of 1996), as amended. Moreover, that the MHSA promotes the spirit of tripartism and cooperation amongst all stakeholders on the mine health and safety of mineworkers and people affected by mining. He too notes, “In this regard, it is through collaboration that the lowest fatalities were recorded during 2022 as well as the lowest injuries and occupational diseases during 2020 and 2021.” (See the info box below for more on other safety improvements.) 6
Other vital factors contributing to improvements
The role of leadership (‘CEOship’ providing strong and visible felt leadership); adoption of leading practices and implementing research and development projects; making significant investments in the adoption of FOG-specific safety interventions; and recognising the special role of rock engineers in mine design to limit falls of ground were all major contributing factors in the improvement seen to date per the Minerals Council.
A stand-out development has been the encouragement of employees to action their right to refuse to work in unsafe areas or to do dangerous work. Exercising this right leads to a change in workplace culture and morale, which in turn improves safe working behaviours, said Fullard.
Where to from here?
Fullard noted, “Our commitment to eliminating fatalities and injuries resulting from falls of ground is unequivocal. We will maintain constant vigilance and leading industry practices to ensure Zero Harm.”
To keep the trajectory for safety on a downward trend, the Minerals Council board started monthly meetings in 2023 to share learnings in successes and failures, maintaining a high degree of company leadership focus on safety initiatives developed internally at member mines.
There is also ongoing commitment to seek out the most innovative technology to ensure and enable better management of safety issues such as rock hazard identification and the safe removal thereof. An example of this has been the most recent Innovation Challenge undertaken recently as part of the Minerals Council’s FOGAP in conjunction with the Mandela Mining Precinct’s Advanced Orebody Knowledge (AOK) programme (which seeks to improve geological confidence at and beyond the rockface) and two champion mines, Sibanye-Stillwater and Impala Platinum. It is hoped that the collective effort between the organisations will uncover fit-for-purpose solutions that will provide tangible results of lives saved and a more efficient, productive workflow into the future. 5
Msiza noted that ensuring all mines collaborate with the DMRE and organised labour in future to have the likes of health and safety day initiatives and campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of adhering to health and safety protocols together with the dissemination of information and Regional Tripartite Forums which are held to engage on health and safety matters – are all important on-going factors that support improvements across the industry. He said, “It is only through continued collaboration and adequate responses to the changing landscape that Zero Harm can be attained in the mining sector.”
According to the Minerals Council, the milestones achieved in 2022, and most recently the month of January 2023, should not be seen as achievements, but rather as a motivation to inspire all to focus on fatality elimination strategies, especially with regards to Trackless Mobile Machinery (TMM) related incidents where regression has been observed, with transport and general type accidents being the major contributors of fatalities during 2022.
Latest sector Occupational Health and Safety stats 6 :
- South Africa welcome address at Investing in African Mining 2023: Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, South Africa, honourable Gwede Mantashe.
- Minerals Council media statement on 1 February 2023: “South Africa’s mining industry records its first-ever January and calendar month without a fatality as safety initiatives to achieve zero harm gain traction.”
- For more detail on FOGAP project pillars go to: https://www.africanmining.co.za/2022/08/01/safety-performance-in-sa-the-stats-and-the-facts/
- See more on lighting safety initiatives: https://joom.ag/Ee4d/p30
- See https://www.africanmining.co.za/2023/02/24/sa-industry-collaboration-supports-tech-innovation-in-rock-hazard-identification-safe-removal/
- Presentation “Overview of 2021/22 Mine Health and Safety Performance” by David Msiza, chief inspector of mines at DMRE on 31 January 2023 to ASPASA surface mining members.