The Mean South African Killing Machine

The poor safety performance of the South African mining industry is often compared to mine safety performance in developed countries, such as Australia, Canada and the USA. These comparisons show that an individual working in a mine in South Africa is eighteen times more likely to be killed than a person employed ion a mine in Australia. It also shows that we are ten times more likely to be killed while driving to work than our Australian counterparts, while the likelihood of being murdered before getting into the vehicle is 60 times higher. In spite of these alarming figures, I have not heard calls for draconian fines and imprisonment for Ministers, Government Officials or others responsible for Transport, Road Safety and Safety and Security such as those that have been suggested for mine owners/managers. To the contrary, some of the government ministers accountable for these departments seem to be gaining in stature.

On the other hand, pity the mine owners and operators who face draconian penalties if a miner suffers a fatal injury on the job. Which raises an important question – How will the call for the imprisonment of owners and/or management prevent accidents that are in most cases the fault of employees who come from an environment where the population at large has such a lax attitude towards safety and risk?

If this is the status quo in society at large, why should we be surprised when we hear about another mine death?  What is surprising is the denial of any responsibility or accountability for any accident or injury of any kind by the workers’ representatives, in particular the NUM. Workplace fatalities are singularly attributed to the behaviour and attitude of the owner/management’s,” profit  above everything’’ motive. Seldom, if ever, is the outcome of the official investigation into the fatality given anywhere near the same attention, which indicates that the reporting of such incidents has become emotional and not analytical.

Because of these relentless attacks on management and mine owners, we have reached a situation where the call by unions for draconian measures- such as exorbitant fines and imprisonment- are actually considered by the Minister. Any reasonable person will accept the suggestion of drastic measures against anyone found to be negligent. This rule should however, not only apply to management; it should also apply to workers who cause injury or death to themselves and others. Perhaps a worker, killed as result of his own risk taking or negligence, should forfeit any insurance payouts to his family. A draconian measure? Most certainly, but so is putting a person in jail because someone died on a mine for which he carries overall responsibility yet cannot control the behaviour of irresponsible employees. As it stands, mine owners have taken drastic measures against senior executives in response to poor safety performance. Do we need to be reminded of similar threats to managers during the nineties when it was suggested that Mine Health and Safety Act be amended to hold managers guilty until proven innocent, a legal principle not applied to the vilest of crimes in society.

What is largely being ignored in the media and in the public domain is the simple fact that Mining is inherently risky. Deep level labour-intensive mining as practiced in South Africa is particularly hazardous and the best way to make these places perfectly safe is to stay the hell out of there and opt for subsistence farming. The main risk attributing factors are the physical operating environment, which include geological features, geophysical and geothermal factors. Other, often more critical and manageable factors include; skill, culture and behaviour of employees (including management, supervisors and workers) and finally engineering factors such as machines, chemicals and tools.

The impact of people factors, including experience, training and culture, on our poor safety performance, are largely ignored and are therefor not adequately addressed. The South African mining industry, operates in one of the most challenging mining environments in the world, and does so with a poorly equipped human resource pool. Even the Chinese with their atrocious mine safety record, are able to draw from a higher worker skills base to operate their mines.

The South African mining industry spends more than anyone else in this country on training and education and it is in these areas that government and labour can contribute greatly by becoming party to them. It is however important that their participation is based on a genuine desire and not the political agendas and ideology of a few individuals. The role of government should be that of coordinator and legislator, while labour should assist by campaigning for the freeing up of funds tied up in ineffective Setas and assisting mine management in setting up workable and effective training programmes. Establishing such proper training will contribute much more to mine safety than astronomical fines and criminal charges leveled against mine management.

The South African safety culture issue is very well illustrated by an observation whilst driving from Pretoria to Rustenburg a while ago. Driving past an informal settlement I could not help but noticing some peculiarities, maybe that is not the right way to put it, it would have been peculiar if I were driving in most other countries. Majakaneng is separated from the highway by a concrete fence constructed on either side of the road to prevent inhabitants of the settlement from crossing the road in an unsafe way or at an unsafe place. Two pedestrian bridges and two multi-purpose, (car- and pedestrian) bridges have been constructed as safe “crossings”.  Everything seemed normal until I noticed the gaps that have been opened at a number of places along the fence.  Making these gaps would have required substantial tools and force. Some of them were made within fifty metres from the pedestrian bridges and people were crossing the road in the face of oncoming traffic instead of using the pedestrian bridges.

There can be little justification for such blatant high-risk behaviour.  In the first place the people doing this has to be just plain lazy.  The second reason could be that there is a lot of truth in the perception, “life is cheap” in South Africa.  A third reason is a culture of risk taking that can be linked to the “life is cheap” culture.  We see this behavior in many aspects of our daily life.  It is evident in the way we use the roads, the risks taken when people make illegal electrical connections to the power grid. We see it in schools where violence is the order of the day with children attacking each other with the intent to kill and the popular “Train surfing” in the township. South Africans do not value life and they show scant respect for lives of others.

Most of the people living in Majakaneng are employed by the surrounding mines and the person employed by a mine in the area is, most likely, the person that made the hole in the fence and took the risk crossing of the road.  I cannot think of any reason why this risk taker will change his behavior when he goes underground to work his shift.  He arrives at work daily, puts on his personal protective equipment, because it is visible and can be policed.  Unfortunately, he does not take off his undesired attitude to safety and risk when he is forced to don his hardhat and other protective equipment. We see risk taking and a total disregard for life beyond the workplace and the roads. Only in South Africa does people, diagnosed with Multi-drug Resistant TB (XDR-TB), escape from hospital to go home and effectively deliver a death sentence to family and friends.

The South African mining industry spends more money than any other South African industry on training and education. It is in training and education where government and labour can contribute greatly to the reduction of risk to life and limb in mines by becoming party to training initiatives put in place by the mining companies. It is however important that their participation are based on desire and not political agendas and ideology. The role of government should be one of coordination and legislation whilst labour should assist in pressurising the freeing up of funds tied up in ineffective Setas and assist management in setting up workable and effective training programs based on effective and valid analysis of industry needs. Establishing focused training will add more to mine safety than fines and criminal charges.

To continue to blame mine deaths on an owner/management drive for profit is mischievous and counter productive and impact negatively by shifting focus away from the real issues. The current approach by the unions and the DME, is one of the reasons causing investors to avoid and in some cases setting up escape strategies from South African mining. Mine owners, for many years, have been monitoring the cost of accidents and concluded that the cost of accidents erodes profit and impacts negatively on the image of mining as an investment option.  With current policy of labour organisations to stop mining every time a fatal accident occurs, it is a no-brainer to suggest that any mine manager/ owner will consider that mine deaths can have a positive impact on profit or any benefit at all. Every mine manager knows the cost of a one-day strike costs his company millions in revenue. Every mine owner and manager realises that mine injuries and fatalities does not only erode profits but will eventually close mines down. It is therefore nothing less than callous provocation to suggest people are killed because of a profit motive of owners and management.

In the mean time, I suggest the South African mining industry get rid of their masochistic characteristics and low self-esteem. I refer of course to an article in the Sunday Time a while ago when, Chris Barron, in the Business Times, asked the question, “Why do South African mines have the worst fatality rate in the world?” This question was not answered by the interviewee. This immediately created the perception that Barron expressed a fact and Mr. Mine Safety agreed. In reality, South Africa does not come close to the worst mine fatality rate in the world. In the interview the interviewee, a safety manager from Angloplats, went further and explained that their new CEO brought a new and improved attitude towards mine safety, suggesting that South Africans are not up to the task. Maybe Mr. Safety should be reminded how many South Africans run divisions of large global mining houses and low and behold, even entire global mining companies. Maybe in his world BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Rio Tinto and Barrick are considered small.


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