Disease stalks SA miners
Mining companies are not doing enough to prevent the spread of diseases caused by mining, with 30% of all gold miners developing silicosis, which is fatal.
Speaking at the opening of the public health building at Wits University, Johannesburg, Jill Murray, an associate professor at the Wits School of Public Health and a pathologist at the National Institute of Occupational Health, said an estimated third of the 250000 former miners across Southern Africa were left without compensation or recourse after falling prey to silicosis.
Silicosis - caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks - is incurable and usually develops years after the miners stop work.
In December, attorney Richard Spoor, representing 17000 former miners, announced a class action lawsuit against more than 30 mining companies to demand compensation for miners who had contracted silicosis in the course of their work .
Murray said research showed that silicosis affected a third of gold miners in South Africa but the incidence could be greatly reduced.
Occupational and health legislation provided for "benefit centres" at which former miners could be tested for silicosis and claim compensation, but there were few of them, she said, and they were "non-functional".
National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said too many mineworkers died from tuberculosis and silicosis.
"Miners who die from silicosis and tuberculosis don't die on the job," he said, "they are usually sent home when they're no longer strong enough to work."
Mining companies give severance pay to workers who are laid-off or retire, but Seshoka said more could be done to compensate them.
"More thought needs to go into increasing medical benefits of retired workers. They [the companies] are not expected to pay for the day-to-day living expenses [of former workers] but the workers deserve to die with dignity."
Research, said Murray, showed that the high incidence of the two diseases could be reduced by better ventilation and other improvements in mining practices.
"We have a very sophisticated industry with major technological advances, but mines are not reducing the rates of disease."
Murray blamed the Department of Mineral Resources' mining inspectorate for not enforcing health and safety regulations.
"There is a huge furore every time a miner is killed by a rock fall, and so there should be, but many more people die from diseases [caused by mining than from seismic events]."
South Africa has the third-highest burden of TB in the world. Miners are usually migratory workers and spread the disease when they go home.
Murray said more than 3000 of every 100000 miners had tuberculosis.
The World Health Organisation has said that when 0.27% of a population has contracted TB it is considered an epidemic.
The Department of Mineral Resources could not be reached for comment.