There have been 69 fatalities in South Africa’s mining sector so far this year compared to 48 in 2020 and the industry stakeholders are now collectively trying to take meaningful action to make sure these numbers are never seen again, by addressing the two main issues: “falls of ground” which refers mainly to rock bursts and rockfalls underground; and transport related incidents – mainly collisions. While the mandating of Level 9 CAS for trackless mobile machines (TMM) in South African mining, both underground and surface (automated machine intervention if necessary to slow down or come to a stop) has been on the cards since mid 2020, now December 2023 is the date being discussed.

At the recent MineSafe 2021 summit, which brought together South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), organised labour, mine professional associations and mining suppliers, the Mine Health and Safety Council and Mining Qualifications Authority and the Minerals Council South Africa, the partners “re–committed themselves to working towards the elimination of fatalities, injuries, and occupational diseases on South Africa’s mines in pursuit of Zero Harm to ensure that each employee returns from work unharmed every day.“

This is the second consecutive year of regression in fatalities and the industry’s stakeholders have committed to urgently address the unacceptable situation. In 2020, the total number of fatalities was 60, up from the lowest number of 51 in 2019. At the MineSafe 2021 Conference, stakeholders accepted responsibility to assist in ensuring individual and group commitments to improve health and safety performances. To achieve a step change towards transforming health and safety in the mining sector, the participants have committed to “taking full accountability in addressing the challenges besetting the mining sector.”

The commitments agreed to at the MineSafe 2021 Conference would complement and help the mining industry to achieve the 2014 Summit Ten–Year Milestones. The tangible outcomes of the MineSafe 2021 Conference included agreements on the implementation of the following actions:

  • Treating all employees with respect, trust and dignity.
  • Assisting each other, asking for help and providing guidance to maintain a healthy and safe environment.
  • Build the existing relationship by earning the trust of other stakeholders by honouring agreements and upholding commitments while engaging respectfully with each other.
  • Adoption of technologies that include modernisation of mine and 4IR–enabled innovations.
  • Adoption of safety leading practices such as collision prevention systems to address transport–related risks and mining with nets and bolts to address fall of ground accidents.
  • Adoption of production technologies like faster rock–drills to shorten the mining cycle, drilling outside the box cut which reduces risks to operators and promotes Zero Harm production by enabling safe behaviour.
  • A priority action to promote the COVID–19 vaccinations to support the physical and mental health of employees and reduce the disruptions to operations, both of which will enable all stakeholders to have a renewed focus on occupational safety.
  • The implementation of the five–year ZAR46 million investment on the implementation of Fall of Ground action plan launched at the Minerals Council ‘s National Day of Health and Safety in Mining held in July 2021.
  • Implementation of a holistic, risk–phased plan on collision–prevention systems with ecosystem readiness for industry–wide adoption by December 2023.
  • Adoption of safe mining practices including the use of safe equipment to favourably respond to the divergent challenges experienced by some mining operations. Examples of these challenges are inter alia; diminishing ore reserves, ageing infrastructure, unfavourable commodity prices, and travelling long distances underground to areas of work.

The actions also include conducting a statistical analysis of all fatalities over the last decade using international leading practice methodologies and proposing an action plan to eliminate all other risks effectively through for example modern training methods. There will also be urgent implementation of an independent assessment study of the Culture Transformation Framework (CTF) priority pillars by the Mine Health and Safety Council. The aim of the assessment should be to identify leading practices that could be promoted and to identify the gaps that still need to be addressed and finalise a revised CTF implementation plan during 2022.

The statement on actions added that “the transformation of health and safety culture should focus, amongst others, on health and safety campaigns, visible felt leadership, zero tolerance to unsafe behaviour, extra vigilance by all workers, strategies to ensure mineworkers have the knowledge, skills and support to exercise their rights to withdraw or refuse to work under dangerous conditions (as per MHSC guideline), effective supervision by all responsible mine personnel to prevent accidents and create a no blame culture to learn and grow from incidents by, for example, holding Days of Learning.

Finally, the industry should ensure that there are adequate consultations at the mine level. “These interactions between management, unions and employees will aid in determining effective measures to enhance health and safety. Further these consultations and engagements will enable a relationship of trust and goodwill amongst all stakeholders.”

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