During 2020 the South African mining industry was shut during level five lockdown and operated with limited capacity upon resumption of operations. In early January 2021, more miners returned to work although the industry had recorded about 233 COVID-19-related deaths by the same period. This will necessitate more efforts to ensure workers’ safety and overcome the shortcomings in the fight against COVID-19 in 2020.
The mining industry is already risky. Workers are likely to be harmed (at times fatally) or contract infectious diseases as they work in confined spaces where infections through the inhalation of toxic pollutants such as silica thrive. In South Africa, occupational diseases are believed to constitute a significant cause of all mining-related fatalities.
The country reported 3,458 occupational diseases (including silicosis, pulmonary tuberculosis and noise-induced hearing loss) in 2018. In the same period, 30 fatalities due to occupational diseases were reported.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges caused by these diseases. It is likely to delay the zero-harm target in the mining sector, set by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and other stakeholders.
Current health and safety issues and their effects
The concern with COVID-19 in the mining sector is two-fold. First, the South African mining industry had already been battling HIV and tuberculosis (TB), associated with an increased risk for COVID-19 mortality. This is a threat to workers’ lives and a threat to the overall workforce and industry’s performance.
Secondly, much attention has been placed on combating the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, efforts towards combating previous existing diseases or infections may be relaxed or put on hold. For example, in urgent attempts in 2020 to address the impact of COVID-19 on mineworkers and communities health, resources had to be reallocated, adversely impacting existing health programmes and services in the industry.
Though the reallocation was necessary due to the urgency to limit the pervasive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, pre-existing occupational diseases must not be neglected as the industry continues to deal with COVID-19 in 2021.
Therefore, it is critical for all stakeholders, especially mining companies and mine workers, to double health and safety efforts to ensure that COVID-19 does not get out of control in the sector.
It is also necessary that the industry pays special attention to managing previous occupational diseases as the lives of persons with such infections are seriously threatened by COVID-19.
Mining is essential to economic development in South Africa. Therefore, it must be done in a way that is “safe and without risk to the health of employees and all those that may be directly affected by the activities of mining,” as Minister Gwede Mantashe noted in a 2019 media statement.
The role of health and safety guidelines
There are various instruments to guide health and safety in the South African mining industry. The Mine Health and Safety Act provides guidelines for protecting employees’ health and safety and other persons at mines”. Also, because the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented, the DMRE gazetted the Covid-19 safety guidelines for mines, as ordered by the Labour Court.
The guidelines seek to assist mining companies “as far as reasonably practicable to establish and maintain a COVID-19 prevention, mitigation and management programme at mines”.
The purpose is to ensure that mineworkers returning during or after lockdown, and other persons at mines are protected from contracting COVID-19 at the workplace. They aim to ensure that communities in contact with mine workers are protected.
One main criticism of the guidelines, also raised by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), is the requirement that employees are to be screened for COVID-19 rather than being physically tested before entering the mines. Screening ignores asymptomatic patients, who can be carriers or affected by the virus without being ill.
Simply questioning patients about their possible contact with the virus cannot, therefore, be conclusive as to whether the person is at risk or not.
Special care must be taken, as far as practically possible, to ensure that whoever goes into the mines is entirely safe as workers often work in confined spaces where social distancing and ventilation can quickly become an issue.
The way out
Loss of mine workers to COVID-19 or confinement of workers who have contracted COVID-19 would be a massive blow to the mining industry’s workforce and could exacerbate the economic challenges of an industry that is already battling with contractions.
To achieve a safe and effectively productive mining industry, disease burden in mines along with added COVID-19 risk, must be equally prioritised and managed. To that effect, there must be compliance with the COVID-19 safety guidelines for mines and the recommendations issued by the departments of health, employment and labour, and the World Health Organisation.
The mining industry is already committed to testing, screening and vaccines rollout (once available), among other COVID-19 good practices. However, compliance and vigilance with these good practices is key, and mines cannot let their guards down. Such compliance will ensure that codes of practice are effective in screening and especially testing to ensure that no infected person or carrier of the virus is at the workplace, especially those with the new and more contagious variant. It is more beneficial to do regular testing and not just screening.
This will further ensure, as far as possible, that when people go into mines, they are safe. Similarly, miners have the responsibility to isolate, go for testing or notify their employers if they have been (or suspect to have been) in contact with the virus or have symptoms.
All these measures are necessary to promote health and safety in the mining industry while pursuing economic development since the industry employs thousands of miners and accounts for about 8% of the country’s GDP.
Written by Bernard Kengni.
This work was carried out under the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund supported under the auspices of the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa (SGCI) and administered by South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) in collaboration with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the Fonds de Recherche du Québec (FRQ), the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID), United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Newton Fund, and the SGCI participating councils across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.