MAC: Mines and Communities

South African Mine Deaths Fall to Lowest on Record

Published by MAC on 2009-01-26
Source: Bloomberg

Mine deaths in South Africa, the world's largest precious metals producer, fell 23 percent last year to the lowest since records began in 1904, after the government started temporarily closing mines, a labor union said.

While the decline to 170 deaths is "significant," it is "still not a cause for celebration," the Johannesburg-based National Union of Mineworkers, which produced the statistics, said today in an e-mailed statement. The government has yet to issue the official death toll.

Inspectors started suspending operations at most mines that recorded a fatal accident after the death toll rose to 221 in 2007, the first increase since 2002. In October 2007, a nationwide safety audit was ordered by the national president after more than 3,000 workers were temporarily trapped underground at Harmony Gold Mining Co.'s Elandsrand mine. Workers last year started holding a day of mourning after most deaths.

AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. made "history" by achieving a fatality-free quarter last year, Sietse van der Woude, a safety specialist at the Chamber of Mines, which represents most mining companies that operate in the country, said from Johannesburg today. AngloGold's Savuka mine is the deepest in the world at 2.35 miles (3.8 kilometers).

World's Deepest

Over the past century more than 54,000 miners have been killed in South Africa's gold mines, which are the deepest and amongst the most dangerous in the world. During white rule, which ended in 1994, companies took advantage of cheap black labor meaning that today South African mines use more workers than many of their counterparts elsewhere.

Official government records, kept by the Department of Minerals and Energy, started in 1904 when 382 gold miners were killed.

In last year's worst accident, nine workers fell 58 meters (190 feet) to their deaths at Gold Fields Ltd.'s South Deep mine on May 1. Gold Fields said a lift known as a cage, used in South African mines to transport workers down shafts that can be more than two miles (3.2
kilometers) deep, fell when a cable snapped.

In 1995, in the worst post-apartheid gold industry accident, 105 workers plunged more than 2 kilometers to their deaths at the Vaal Reefs Mine, then operated by a unit of Anglo American Plc, after a cable supporting a cage was severed by a runaway ore train.

South Africa's Chief Inspector of mines, Thabo Gazi's telephone was on voicemail when Bloomberg News contacted his Pretoria office today.

His department inspects mines after fatalities occur and suspends operations until it is satisfied with safety measures.

Regulation Concerns

"We are concerned about the way it's done sometimes," the chamber's Van der Woude said. While effective regulation improves safety, "some of the actions taken didn't always contribute to good safety and health."

The government is too focused on punishment to the detriment of preventative behavior, relying on "too much stick and too little carrot," he said.

While the decline in South African mine production last year contributed to the "remarkable" reduction in deaths, improved safety measures also helped the number of fatalities per hour to decrease, Van der Woude added.

Miners in South Africa are regularly killed in accidents ranging from rock bursts, where pressure causes rocks to explode, and partial mine collapses caused by earth tremors.
South Africa is the world's second-biggest producer of gold after China and the world's largest platinum producer. Most fatal mining accidents in the country occur at gold or platinum mines because of their depth.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carli Lourens in Johannesburg at Last Updated: January 9, 2009 06:06 EST

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