Mining…Killing for Profit?

July 22, 2009

The tragic accident, in which nine miners were killed, hangs like a shadow over an industry, which, for many reasons, has become less and less competitive over the years, an industry that can now only be described as an industry in crisis. The sad part is that, before any investigations were done the fingers were pointing and blame was apportioned, mostly to management and owners. In reality, the South African culture of risk-taking and the low value placed on life by sectors of the population are, with the inherent risk of mining, the main causes of fatalities in SA mines. To suggest mine owners “Kill for Profit” is ridiculous and a reflection the intelligence of those prescribing to the idea.

 Apportioning Blame

Solidarity was quick to point to the poor safety performance of the South African mining industry in comparison to mine safety performance in developed countries such as Australia, Canada and the USA. Such comparisons do show that mining in South Africa is eighteen times more likely to kill you than it is in Australia. It also shows that we are ten times more likely to be killed on the road, driving to the killer mine, than in Australia. However, the likelihood that you will be murdered before you get into your car is 60 times higher than it would be in Australia. It is ironic that we measure mining bosses against the highest safety standards in the world but we are quite happy to compare our road safety and crime with against the worst standards. It is quite in order for Ministers, Government Officials and others responsible for Transport, Road Safety, Safety and Security and Health facilities to be compared against lower standards

Why are we surprised when we hear about another mine death?  How does the owner’s desire to profit from mining contribute to the death of the risk takers in underground ‘’accidents’’?  How will the call for imprisonment of owners and/or management prevent accidents caused by people with such attitude to safety and risk?

What is surprising in all of this is the denial of any responsibility and accountability, for any accident or injury of any kind, by workers representatives, in particular the NUM. We never hear of the union member who took a shortcut thus putting his colleague in danger. The recent hostage drama orchestrated and executed by reckless Union members, placing lives in danger, yet exonerated by NUM is a prime example of poor attitude. Media reporting of fatal injuries in mines has become emotional and sensational thus making reasoning around mine safety issues 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. When gross and deliberate negligence exists, 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 and owners, but also to workers who cause injury or death. Perhaps a worker killed as result of his own risk taking and negligence, should forfeit any insurance payouts to his family. A draconian measure? Most certainly, but so is putting someone in jail because someone died on a mine for which he is responsible because of the negligence of another. As it is, mine owners have taken drastic measures against senior executives in response to poor safety performance. Unions on the other hand, will fight the sanctions against their negligent and reckless members with everything in their power.

Mining is Risky

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.

Certain pursuits are inherently more dangerous than others, an undeniable truth, to expect mines to be comparable to a bank, as a place of work, is absurd. To expect police work to be free of risk to life is equally absurd and people accept it as such.

The impact of people factors, experience, training and culture, on our poor safety performance, are largely ignored and are therefore not adequately addressed. The reasons why these issues are seldom highlighted are legion. Suffice to know, due to affirmative action, global skills demand in the resource sector, coupled with poor education and sub-standard training; we have a dire shortage of technical skills at all levels. Given the inexperience of supervisors and managers, we should consider ourselves lucky that we do not kill more people in our mines. 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 China, with their atrocious mine safety record; operate their mines utilising a higher worker skill base.

Risk Takers

South Africans have a death wish and no respect for life. We see it in everyday life. Driving from Pretoria to Rustenburg, a while ago I noticed, at an informal settlement, the concrete fence separating it from the N4 to safeguard and prevent inhabitants from making dangerous road crossings. Despite the erection of four pedestrian bridges, the inhabitants have chosen to break the, very substantial, fences and now cross the busy highway in the face oncoming traffic. 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 makes the hole in the fence and takes the risk to make the dangerous and illegal crossing of the road.  I cannot think of any reason why this risk taker will change his behavior when he goes underground to work.

High-risk behaviour of South Africans is inexcusable. People doing this, can only be stupid and lazy.  The second reason could be that there is a lot of truth in the perception, that South Africans have a “life is cheap”-culture.  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 the daily life of South Africans.  It is evident in the way they 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, which is a dangerous equivalent of Russian roulette. Many South Africans do not value life and they show scant respect for their lives and the lives of others.

We see risk taking and a total disregard for life beyond the workplace and the roads. Only in South Africa do 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. Only in South Africa do they pass HIV/Aids on with gay abandon. Only in South Africa do witchdoctors kill hundreds of teenage boys in traditional initiation rituals.

 The Way Forward

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 genuine training initiatives put in place by the mining companies. It is however important that their participation are based on genuine desire and not political agendas and ideology of a few individuals. 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 after effective and valid analysis of industry needs. Establishing proper training will add more to mine safety than astronomical fines and criminal charges.

To continue to blame mine deaths on an owner/management drive for profit is mischievous and counter productive. It impacts negatively on the problem and efforts to improve the situation. The current approach of apportioning blame, by the unions and the DME, are counter-productive. Mine owners, for many years, have been monitoring the cost of accidents.  They have concluded long ago that the cost of accidents erodes profit and impacts negatively on the image of mining as an investment option.