Safety and health
Deep-level underground mining requires unremitting commitment and adherence to safety and health standards and procedures. Much has been achieved in recent years, with employers, labour and government working together to protect those at work underground.
The industry is committed to a vision of zero harm, where every miner returns from work each day in good health. Policies, programmes and campaigns are in place at all mining companies to increase safety awareness and provide safety training.
Sophisticated cooling methods and equipment reduce ambient temperatures to reasonable working temperatures. To address the stresses to which rock faces are inevitably subject at depth, a vast infrastructure of support mechanisms is in place, backed by worldleading seismic monitoring and research.
Falls of ground and accidents relating to transport and machinery are responsible for most mine injuries. Fatalities due to falls of ground (sudden and often unexpected movements of the underground rock mass accompanied by uncontrolled releases of debris and rock) have reduced by 93% over the past 20 years, due to improvements in rock engineering techniques and other factors. Reasons for falls of ground remain the subject of further research as they are still a major cause of fatalities. Money is invested in technological developments, including initiatives such as seismic monitoring and improved roof support using bolting and netting.
Transportation incidents tend to be associated with trackless mobile machines and rail-bound equipment, as well as collisions with people in confined areas or close to moving equipment. Progress has been made in the area of vehicle avoidance systems. Initiatives are continuing to look at best practice across the industry in an attempt to reduce these accidents.
Smoke inhalation may occur when an underground fire occurs. All employees have at their disposal self-contained selfrescue equipment – essentially a breathing apparatus which provides at least 30 minutes of oxygen, while the individual makes his/ her way to a place of refuge. All underground working places are equipped with refuge bays, which are protected chambers located within 30 minutes of all working places, and which are equipped with fresh air, water and communication devices.
Tuberculosis (TB), HIV and silicosis are all important health issues in the gold mining industry.
Silicosis is an incurable lung disease suffered by underground gold miners due to exposure to silica dust which is found in gold ore bodies. The industry, over the decades, has been seeking to improve the effectiveness of underground dust management as knowledge and technology have improved. As a consequence, the incidence of silicosis has reduced significantly. It is hoped that the time is not far off when new miners will no longer become diagnosed with the disease. The industry is also working with government and organised labour to improve compensation for workers with silicosis.
TB is a major public health issue caused by poor socio-economic conditions such as areas of poor ventilation and overcrowding which causes it to be passed on through coughing, sneezing or talking. It is particularly serious in South Africa, including in the mining industry. People with silicosis are prone to contracting TB. Gold mining companies in South Africa provide comprehensive detection and treatment services for employees. Increasingly, in joint efforts with government and unions, they have been working together to address TB in mining towns.
Gold mining companies began providing preventative services for HIV/Aids in the mid- 1980s when the disease first came to public attention. In South Africa, as TB is the main opportunistic disease experienced by people who are HIV positive, the mines' health facilities' TB work has been central to countering the effects of HIV. Mining companies were, from 2002, the first in South Africa – some years before government - to offer comprehensive, mass-based anti-retroviral therapy to HIV-positive employees.