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Mining industry under pressure to reduce fatalities
17 March 2011
Mining industry under pressure to reduce fatalities

The mining industry is under intense pressure to reduce mining deaths following the Minister of Mineral Resources’, Susan Shabangu, announcement of a multi-million rand plan to improve enforcement and prosecutions.

“A huge amount, R145 million, has been allocated for mine health and safety in the 2010/11 financial year,” says Wessel Badenhorst, director and mine safety law expert at Werksmans Attorneys. “It is clear from the Minister’s recent remarks that a significant portion of this will be focused on getting prosecutions right in the foreseeable future as an incentive to prevent accidents.”

In her budget speech in May 2010, Minister Shabangu while noting a “slight reduction” in mining fatalities in 2009, when 165 employees died compared to 171 in 2008, she said the fatality rate remained a matter of “great concern”.

Implying that the onus is on employers to get their houses in order, the Minister said the R145 million would be spent in three ways. Firstly, the Mine Health and Safety Act was amended last year to improve enforcement and facilitate prosecutions and money will be allocated to achieve this goal this year. Secondly, a new chief directorate for occupational health will be established and more health inspectors appointed. Thirdly, increased emphasis will be placed on assessing the action taken by mines to deal with high-risk areas prone to seismic events.

The reason for the latter, says Badenhorst, is that fall-of-ground accidents are the leading cause of mining fatalities, some of which are triggered by seismic events. “These accidents are also caused by human error or negligence, particularly when shortcuts are taken during drilling or blasting. It is these accidents that leave mine management exposed to the risk of charges of criminal negligence.”

Badenhorst says the second main cause of mining fatalities is accidents related to transportation and machinery. “This is a very broad category and could involve accidents caused by anything from the operation of mining equipment underground to the operation of cages or the use of conveyor belts. Often, these accidents happen because the safety mechanisms for machines have not been properly tested or the operators have taken shortcuts.”

Following the amendments to the Act last year, the financial penalty which can now be imposed for a breach of safety procedures is an administrative fine of R1 million per incident, which is a signifant increase to the previous administrative fine structure.  Also, these new fines cannot be appealed against and a review application challenging the fine imposed would not suspend its implementation.  In addition, criminal prosecution of persons who contributed to the accident may follow. “While infrequent, and in many cases clumsy prosecutions took place under the previous version of the Act,  we can expect the rate and efficiency of prosecutions to increase once the amendments to the Act filters though and the Department applies its powers to appoint experts to assist in the investigation and prosecution of mining accidents,” Badenhorst says.

He warns that the entire chain of command which are required to be formally appointed under the appointment structure of the Act at a mine can be held liable for a fatal accident involving negligence, from the chief executive to the mine manager, the mine safety representative, the section engineer, the section manager, the shift boss, the mine overseer, the miner and the employee at the rock face.

“Considering the clear signals coming from the Minister about improving enforcement and increasing the frequency and efficiency of prosecutions, employers are advised to be proactive in bringing their safety standards up to speed and averting systemic failures,” Badenhorst says. “A systemic failure leads to heavy penalties and results in a record that could negatively impact on the granting of mining rights down the line.”

More particularly, employers need to ensure their policies and codes of practice are up to date and that their appointment structures and training comply with the Mine Health and Safety Act and best industry practice.

“One way to ensure ongoing compliance is to adopt a proactive process of conducting a health and safety legal compliance audit,” he says. “Bear in mind that health and safety is an ongoing process, meaning that safety policies and procedures should be tested and revisised at regular intervals.”

Since fall-of-ground accidents, as well as incidents involving machinery, are the main causes of mining fatalities, these areas should be the key focus of employers’ legal safety compliance reviews.

Source: Werksmans Attorneys
Photo: blogcdn.com


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