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Safety standards at Sibanye mines questioned

Four deaths confirmed at the miner’s Kloof operations on Tuesday.

NOMPU SIZIBA: At least four miners are confirmed to have died at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Kloof mine. The company has suffered over 20 deaths at their mines this year alone, and questions are being raised about safety standards there.

On the line I’m joined by Thabisile Phumo, the head of stakeholder engagement at Sibanye-Stillwater. Thanks very much for joining us, Thabisile. What is the status in terms of the number of miners who died today as a result of being in an abandoned part of the Kloof mine, and what happened to the fifth miner who was unaccounted for earlier in the day?

THABISILE PHUMO: Good evening, thank you. At this stage you will recall that yesterday we reported that we had an incident in which five miners were involved in a mining incident where they went into an abandoned area. Of the five miners four have been retrieved. At this point our rescue team are continuing with their search efforts for the fifth miner.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Have you heard any reports from people on the ground as to how those men came to be in an abandoned part of the mine, and what were the possible circumstances within that area that led to their deaths?

THABISILE PHUMO: Well, at this point our focus has obviously been on rescue efforts. The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is on site and will be leading an investigation that will determine the cause of the incident. But what we can establish right now, because they went into an abandoned area, is that that area did not have ventilation because it’s not where they were working, and currently indications are that they may have succumbed obviously to the heightened pressures in the abandoned area that they had entered.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Now, given this incident and the DMR being on the scene, what does that mean for the operations today?

THABISILE PHUMO: Well, today obviously the mine operations have been suspended, pending the rescue process. But we’ve also used today to afford the opportunity to go for trauma counselling. We remain hopeful that we will be able to locate the fifth person, who is currently unlocated, as well. But once again this is a very difficult situation for us as an organisation – but especially for the same reason as an organisation we send our condolences to the families who have lost their loved ones as a result of this incident.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Now, technically speaking, my understanding is that when there is an incident at the mine the miners – that is yourselves – would try to negotiate with the DMR to say just cordon off the area that was affected, not the whole mine. Is that going to be your push? Since it was in an abandoned part of the mine, would operations still be able to go on? I know it sounds rather insensitive, but I just want to understand the practicalities of what would happen henceforth.

THABISILE PHUMO: Look, we don’t actually get into what you would call a negotiation. The DMR will conduct an in loco inspection and, on the basis of what they find, they will then decide what action they need to take. And we obviously as a mine comply with whatever action that the DMR will determine for us.

NOMPU SIZIBA: The mineral resources minister, Gwede Mantashe, has condemned the deaths and he has asked that mining companies and specifically yourselves jerk up you safety systems. Do you think it’s rather unfair that people are questioning your safety systems, or that all the tragedies that have happened this year are merely a coincidence?

THABISILE PHUMO: Look, we can’t say it’s unfair, because obviously the numbers speak for itself. But what we can say is we’ve got proper safety systems, processes and procedures in place. In fact, we have intensified our efforts in terms of safety mindsets and safety behaviour. So we believe that we are doing all we can, obviously, with the systems as governed by the regulation to ensure that our mines are safe. But what we have to recognise is that we are facing a challenge this year.

That is why three weeks ago we had a dialogue together with the DMR, our recognised unions Amcu, Num, Uasa and Solidarity to actually begin to have a serious conversation so that we can get to the bottom of the challenges that we are currently facing and map together a way forward to make sure that we can change the current challenges that we are facing. As you would probably recognise, safety is a collaborative effort. There’s our employees, our unions and ourselves who are in the rockface, who obviously need to work together to make sure that there is compliance to standards, but also that there are safety mindsets and behaviours in place to ensure that we don’t have such similar incidents in future.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You talk about safety mindsets and behaviour. I see that your CEO, Mr Neal Froneman, is quoted recognising that indeed there has been a regression in the company’s safety performance of late. However, he seemed to blame this largely on human error, and that would sort of gel with what you are saying – that perhaps it’s a mindset that is leading to people getting into trouble.

THABISILE PHUMO: Look, it’s a combination of factors and every incident is different, and you need to look at the merits of these incidents. But if you look at dealing with safety, you’ve got to look at all the factors, being your systems and processes and… fault, but you also have got to look at the issue of mindset and the issue of human behaviour. And with all those factors combined, if they work together, you should be in a position to ensure that you turn the tide against the current challenges that we are facing.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You spoke about a collaborative effort to obviously map a way forward. How long do you anticipate that this process will take, because with every day, with every week that passes, there will be that fear among the workforce that we are going down today but we are not sure if we are going to make it – given that they’ve lost so many of their colleagues. How long is that process going to take and when do you hope to start instituting or maybe overhauling your safety systems?

THABISILE PHUMO: Look, I think its is important to confirm that our safety standards, our safety systems and processes are regulated by law. So obviously they meet the legal standards. Where we have challenges in specific areas – obviously we would look into that. But I want to emphasise that we have unions on site and we have been working together with our unions. But we’ve had extraordinary circumstances this year, which is why we have had to pause and introspect so that we can come up with a understanding of why things have taken this shape, and how do we as all reset.

What I just want to clarify is not that things have to stop for this conversation to happen, but I think it is important that we reflect as to what it is that we are not getting right, irrespective of the safety systems and processes and the conversations we are having because, as I said earlier, the current number of deaths in our organisation is regrettable and that’s why we need to do something differently so we can get a different outcome.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Absolutely. Look, Thabisile, I know this is a very sensitive matter. People have just died and so on. But what happens in instances where miners lose their lives at work? What are the processes involved in terms of compensation and things like that – just broadly speaking?

THABISILE PHUMO: What actually happens is we obviously cover the cost of the funeral. But post the funeral we then take over the responsibility, firstly, of supporting the families in terms of ensuring that the children of the deceased are taken to school until age 18. Once they finish high school, should they wish to go to university or whatever institution of their choice, we also cover that. But, in addition to that, we also now, for every miner that has passed on, support them with a house. So in the case where there is no house we do build a house and if they say they do have a house, we then engage with the family to find how we can remodel or maybe expand the house that they have.

This is over and above obviously the death benefit that the family will receive as a result of the death. For the first three months we actually support the family with a grocery allowance until such time that the payout begins to flow to the family. So there are a variety of things we do. And in addition to that, we ensure that there is an income coming into that family. We have what we call a “replacement strategy” where the family of the deceased will then be requested to perhaps nominate a member of the family who will then replace an employee who has passed on, to ensure that that family continues to have a consistent income.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Thank you, Thabisile. Thank you very much for speaking to us this evening and all the very best with the investigations and everything that needs to go on there.

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The number of deaths this year at Sibanye is worrying but from the stats shown in a Moneyweb article yesterday the overall level of deaths in the mining industry is incredibly low i.e. safety standards are very high. Here’s a stat that should concern everyone yet no seems to care: More people (including miners on their way to and from work) die in taxi-related incidents IN THE FIRST WEEK OF THE YEAR than in the mining industry the ENTIRE YEAR. Yet unions having nothing to say about the loss of (mainly Black) life at the hands of taxi-thugs. It is tragic that the loss of a life at a mine (often due to natural event such as tremors) is any more tragic than someone perishing at the hands of a reckless, lawless, taxi-thug. Please someone help me understand because my umlungu brain is struggling with this one?

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