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SA mining industry struggling to contain spread of COVID-19

The number of positive coronavirus cases confirmed within the sector so far suggests the spread is not easing, with 1,559 active cases at the last count, while 1,166 workers have recovered.

Miners at work in a mine shaft. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - At least 14 mineworkers have died from COVID-19, with nearly 3,000 cases within the sector having been recorded so far across the country.

The Minerals Council, which represents 385 mines, has been collating the numbers among mineworkers since the coronavirus outbreak.

The infection rate shows a steep increase from the 384 which was reported initially in May when operations resumed at full capacity at some mines.

The mining industry was among the first sectors to be given a reprieve by government – allowing it to operate at 50% capacity during the hard lockdown – while the rest of the industry went back to full operations during level 3.

However, the number of positive coronavirus cases confirmed so far suggests the spread is not easing, with 1,559 active cases at the last count, while 1,166 workers have recovered.

Of the 14 deaths, seven were in the North West province where the highest number of infections was recorded.

Unions raised the alarm about the industry’s ability to prevent the spread of the disease months ago, saying the close proximity of mineworkers either above surface or underground made them vulnerable to the virus.

The industry employs 423,387 people but has so far only tested just over 20,000 workers.

National Union of Mineworkers president Joseph Montisetse said they were concerned that the industry appeared to be edging closer to becoming an epicentre of the virus.

"We are engaging various companies to come with new measures that can be controlled by an agreement between all the parties."

In May, Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe pleaded with the sector to increase the rate of testing.

He added that the department would invoke Section 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act and shut down mines if they were found to only screen workers but not test them.

SANCTIONS AT 37 COMPANIES

The department confirmed that 37 mining companies had been issued with Section 54 and 55 orders over the past three months as the industry struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The sanctions, which in some cases led to mine closures, were in line with the Mine Health and Safety Act.

The department has, however, emphasised that the 37 issuances were not limited to non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations.

It said its inspectorate service had conducted over 1,500 inspections and audits of mines across the country in the past three months, with 37 companies found to not be complying with set regulations.

Section 54 notices give inspectors the power to stop a section or the whole mine’s operations if dangerous conditions are detected.

Meanwhile, Section 55 merely gives mines a specified period within which to comply with mine-safety regulations.

When operations resumed in the industry, the department had to shut down some mines which were not complying with COVID-19 prevention guidelines.

The regulations – among others – compel mining houses to screen workers for COVID-19 and conduct tests of suspected coronavirus cases.

The Minerals Council has also established a code of practice which guides its members on how to best deal with the pandemic.

IMPLATS FATALITIES

Six of the 14 mineworkers who have died in different operations across the country were employees of Impala Platinum (Implats).

The mine’s management was in trouble with the law in April after allegedly calling workers back to work en masse despite the Disaster Management Act only allowing limited operations at the time.

CEO of Implats’ Rustenburg mine, Mark Munroe, was subsequently charged and released on bail.

Spokesperson of the JSE-listed Implats, Johan Theron, said the company, which employs about 50,000 workers, has recorded 882 positive cases of COVID-19.

Although the majority of deaths recorded are in South Africa, the company has also registered a single death at its Canada operations.

Theron said of the confirmed cases, 440 people had since recovered.

Implats’ operations are mostly in the North West platinum belt where the majority of positive cases in the sector were recorded.

The company was also among the first to disclose the number of COVID-19 cases at its operations in Limpopo when 19 workers tested positive at Marula platinum mine.

According to the Minerals Council, only one mining-related death has been recorded in Limpopo due to the virus, while the number of cases now stands at 218.

PROACTIVE APPROACH

The world’s leading primary producer of platinum group metals, Anglo American Platinum, says it has recorded 143 COVID-19 cases at its operations.

The bulk of the company’s platinum mines are based in Limpopo where the majority of the active cases have been recorded.

The infection rate appears to be far less than other mines in the country.

Company spokesperson Jana Marais said they screened more than 20,000 workers daily, while employees have also been armed with tools to check themselves from home before leaving for work.

"We've got the ability to provide initial medical assistance at home to those who do report symptoms through our app or control rooms."

Anglo American Platinum, which employs more than 15,000 people, has also seen no deaths due to COVID-19 at its operations.

Marais attributed this to the producer’s proactive approach which is the most extensive in the industry.

"And based on this, we carry out subsequent testing as appropriate for those employees that show symptoms or who may be considered at risk of contracting the virus."

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