Mines count the human cost of Covid and work-related fatalities

Covid claims 749 miners’ lives; work-related fatalities increase, but better news in controlling diseases such as TB.
An exodus of experienced rock engineers from SA was found to be among the reasons for a rise in the number of mine fatalities from ‘fall of ground’ incidents. Image: Bloomberg

Covid claimed the lives of some 749 miners over the last two years, with 74 more losing their lives in work-related fatalities, Minerals Council of SA CEO Roger Baxter told the Mining Indaba in Cape Town last week.

Mine fatalities reached their lowest level in three decades in 2019 when the number dropped to 51 for the year.

That statistic promptly reversed course to claim 60 lives in 2020 and 74 in 2021.

That compares with the United States, which reported six consecutive years of mine fatalities below 30 in 2020.

Source: Minerals Council, DMRE

Baxter says there appears to be a variety of reasons behind the deteriorating mine fatality performance, with work fatigue being a key culprit.

Read: Harmony Gold reports four mine deaths [May 9]

Figures from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy show “Falls of ground” as the leading cause of mine deaths until 2011, when it was brought under control.

Source: DMRE

Some 30% of mine fatalities were from fall of ground (FoG) incidents in 2020, prompting the Minerals Council’s Zero Harm Forum to find out why this was.

It found an exodus of experienced rock engineers from SA, with many others reaching retirement age, with little or no progress on execution of rock-related projects currently in Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) research programme and projects.

Another reason for rock-related incidents was an attitude of getting the job done, often at the cost of safety.

Transport-related accidents are another leading cause of fatalities, which is a reason for the move towards the kind of “operator assist” technology employed at Kumba Iron Ore operations.

This technology uses sensors and overrider technology to prevent trucks colliding with people or other obstacles in the pathway, or making otherwise dangerous manoeuvres.

The below video shows driver operator assist technology at work in Kumba Iron Ore’s Sishen mine in the Northern Cape.

Source: Anglo American

The Minerals Council has stepped up its efforts to bring mine fatalities under control, including deploying more skilled employees to work in high risk areas, preventing unauthorised access to previously mined areas and implementing stricter controls in these areas, and making sure workers receive sufficient breaks to prevent fatigue.

Read:

There were 749 people in the industry who died from Covid over the last two years, with a fatality rate of 1.18% for the sector as a whole – which is lower than the general population.

More than 70% of mine workers are vaccinated against Covid, about double the level for the general population.

Dr Thuthula Balfour, head of health at the Minerals Council, points to a number of successes in the mining sector, including a sharp decline in diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), which were at one time a major cause of death on mines.

The mining sector is also having a major impact on HIV which, like Covid and TB, is now largely under control due to proactive measures taken to protect workers.

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