Tackling noise-induced hearing loss, sit-ins and accidents: Miners' health in the spotlight

Mines' safety record regresses after Impala accident

06 February 2024 - 12:50
By Dineo Faku
Noise-induced hearing loss is a top health challenge in the mining industry.
Image: Microgen/123rf.com Noise-induced hearing loss is a top health challenge in the mining industry.

The mining industry's safety record regressed in 2023 with the death of 13 mineworkers at Impala Platinum's Rustenburg 11 shaft in November.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Investing in African Mining Indaba on Tuesday, chair of the Minerals Council’s CEO Zero Harm Forum Japie Fullard said fatalities in the industry should be zero given its aim of ensuring employees return home safely every day.

“We are not happy with these figures, it should be zero, that is why we call it zero harm. That is why we are striving towards that,” he said.

Fullard said fatality trends had come down with lower incidents of seismicity and fall of ground given technological advancement and efforts put in by the industry.

Impala Platinum CEO Nico Muller in November described the accident at its Rustenburg 11 shaft as the company's “darkest day” after a conveyance hoisting 86 employees to the surface at the end of their shift unexpectedly started descending rapidly before plunging to the ground.

There was a record low number of mine deaths in 2022 at 49, down from 74 a year before. Mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe is scheduled to release safety and health statistics for 2023 later this year.

Thuthula Balfour, head of health at the minerals council, said safety incidents were decreasing but the council was concerned about the increasing incidents of noise-induced hearing loss. This, TB and silicosis were the major health challenges in the mining industry.

A significant number of employees are exposed to noise levels of more than 85 decibels, she said. As a result, the council's key interventions are focused on enhancing efforts to ensure workplaces implement “quiet” initiatives.

“The other diseases have gone down markedly, whereas noise-induced hearing loss has not gone down as much ... It has displaced TB, which used to be the thing we were talking about,” said Balfour.

“It is about eliminating noise at the source. A company should not purchase machinery which is emitting excessive noise. We don't want that our interventions are dependent on the employees using only earmuffs because there are many other factors that make it not possible for employees to use the muffs efficiently, for example when it is very hot and humid.”

In addition to fatalities, the mining industry is grappling with a rise in underground sit-ins after employees led underground sit-ins at the Blyvoor Gold Mine, Gold One, Impala Platinum and Wesizwe's Bakubung Platinum Mine.

Minerals Council CEO Mzila Mthenjane said the biggest concern is the safety of employees during underground sit-ins.

“Employees find themselves in situations where they do not have food, water and suffer dehydration. They [the sit-ins] last for up to three days. That presents very unsafe conditions,” Mthenjane said, adding there had so far been no fatalities or serious injuries as a result of underground sit-ins.

“We do need to engage unions and the government and come to an agreement to eliminate the sit-ins, but we first need to understand the root causes.”

Business Times