Johannesburg – It is a 2.7km drop, at 16m per second. You have to swallow your spit several times, yawn or chew for your ears to acclimatise to the rapidly changing air pressure.
The air is thick and hot.
After just 15 minutes of walking through Sibanye Gold Mine’s Ya Rona shaft, level 33, streams of sweat are falling from the faces of media workers invited by the occupational lung disease working group – established by seven mining companies – to experience the methods and systems used in the industry’s underground dust management programmes.
The companies involved in the working group are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti, DRDGold, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Gold.
The unprecedented lawsuit, which is seeking justice for former miners who developed silicosis and/or tuberculosis while working underground in gold mines around Gauteng and the Free State since 1965, has thrust a spotlight on occupational lung diseases suffered by miners and the lack of effective and fair compensation.
Affected miners have initiated a class action against 32 gold mining companies to claim compensation for their illnesses. The applicants are seeking to have two classes certified so that the case can continue as a class action, while the mining companies are opposing the certification.
“Issues of silicosis and lung disease have been high on the agenda recently; last year, a group of five mining companies – now seven – got together on the seriousness of lung disease as a legacy issue. The idea was that companies need to work towards a comprehensive compensation solution,” said Alan Fine from Russell and Associates.
There are three pillars to the compensation that the companies are looking into, according to Fine. These are shifting miners to a more “efficient” compensation fund, helping past employees access compensation through working with the Compensation Commissioner, and a “legacy fund” for the current claimants involved in the lawsuit.
All of Driefontein’s 13 shafts are interconnected on some level underground. However, only seven are operational.
The mine manages respirable crystalline silica at source by means of wet drilling and other engineering controls such as ventilation, dust allaying, filtration at tipping points and centralised blasting to prevent peak exposures. Employees are also given personal protective equipment (PPE).
Vijay Nundlall, head of environmental engineering at Sibanye, said the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) had updated its health and safety milestones from a maximum exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica of 0.1mg to below 0.05 mg by 2024. And to reach that target, he said the mine has its own target to reduce silica dust exposure by 20 percent per year.
He said the mine had been improving its risk management and treatment of dust over the last 10 years through interventions such as footwall treatment – where a molasses mixture is sprayed on the walls and ground of the mine – haulage sprays, watering down of miners with hose pipes of cool water, and stope atomising sprays which blow out a mix of water and air to wet complete panels.
Overhead at Ya Rona shaft’s level 33, are ventilation columns – one force column to pump air inside the mine and another exhaust column to suck out contaminated air.
Speaking at a waiting area where miners are briefed in the mornings and evenings, Dave Smith, head of production at level 33, said miners were also trained on health and safety underground and were made aware daily of areas where there was dust overexposure.
Several boards face the blue and white benches where miners sit through briefings. These boards have information on shift schedules, blasting times and progress of mining as well as silicosis and lung disease educational material.
Miners work eight-hour shifts, or up to 12 hours if they haven’t completed their targets. The mine also has a dual-fold clinic where miners receive occupational disease screening, diagnostics and treatment, as well as normal clinic services. Underground workers are screened yearly for TB and silicosis.
Once a miner is diagnosed with TB, Dr Jameson Malemela said they were treated at the clinic free of charge.
“In terms of our new wage agreement, we have also extended leave days for miners diagnosed with TB from the basic 36 days as per legislation to 84 days,” he said.