To describe the size of the stone that killed a fellow South African miner four years ago, THABANG DITIBANE opened his arms widely.
The rock had smashed his head when Ditibane, a rock drill operator at the Eland mine north of Johannesburg, turned around after hearing the noise. Ditibane was standing in a 6-foot-high gully that was lit by a string of lights that resembled a snake as he spoke. Thousands of tonnes of rock were hanging above.
Another mine was the scene of the incident; a rock had unexpectedly fallen into the tunnel. These incidents, often known as falls of ground (FOGs), have long been a major contributor to unintentional fatalities in South African mines.
The country’s largest business organisation, the Minerals Council South Africa, claims that since industrial-scale mining started in the late 19th century, more than 80,000 South African miners have died while working. More than a million people have been seriously injured. The International Council on Mining and Metals, a trade organisation, claims that although the nation’s track record has greatly improved recently, its mines are still among the most hazardous in the world.
Union representatives want the sector to invest more in enhancing safety. The business sector “is not making enough investments in health and safety issues. They put more money into creating profits,” claimed Livhuwani Mammburu, a representative for the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa.
Mines in South Africa are not nearly as dangerous as they formerly were, according to experts. The mining industry has been forced to mine more safely since the early 1990s as a result of increased regulatory scrutiny, labour activism, and investor pressure. The government, labour unions, and the industry have all made “Zero Harm” their stated objective.
Statistics point to a significant decrease in FOG fatalities already this year. However, some industry executives and experts assert that in order to achieve the aim of zero accidents, new technologies would be needed, such as advanced radars that, in theory, can identify ground collapses before they occur. Some experts claim that the new gadgets have the potential to significantly reduce fatalities by building on the effectiveness of radars deployed on surface mines to warn about impending landslides.
How far these tools can travel is unknown. The mining industry has indicated its willingness to invest in R&D, but whether any corporation decides to use such technology will depend on costs. Additionally, geology is always capable of hiding fatal surprises, particularly in South Africa.