With six mineworkers killed and 48 injured in an underground fire at Palabora Copper Mine in the Limpopo Province caused by a burning conveyor belt, increasingly South African mines are becoming death-traps for mine workers.
On 15 July, when the mine was supposed to be on shut down, management sent 200 workers underground to increase production. According to IndustriALL Global Union affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the fire could have been caused by high underground temperatures. Workers say switching off the fire suppression system, including the water supply, because of the shutdown, is what made the fire difficult to control.
The conveyor belt is also suspected to have been sub-standard. Regulations stipulate that a conveyor belt should be fire resistant and self-extinguishing which was not the case at Palabora.
For these reasons, the union wants the management “to tell the truth” on the cause of the fire, and why workers were exposed to such dangerous working conditions.
The NUM is also calling upon the department of mineral resources to investigate the incident and play its oversight role to ensure that the mining company complies with mining health and safety regulations. According to the Mines Health and Safety Act the employer must ensure that the mine provide “conditions for safe operation and a healthy working environment” and this applies to the mine’s construction activities and equipment as well. Failure to do so can result in the employer being charged of “negligent failure” for not providing a safe working environment for the workers.
Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary said:
“It’s unacceptable for mining companies to be negligent on health and safety issues especially when workers continue to die from avoidable mine accidents. Workers’ rights to life must be respected and cannot be traded at whatever cost.”
Minister of mineral resources Gwede Mantashe said in a statement:
“It is unfortunate that, as a country we have lost so many lives in this disaster. These deaths add to an already high number of lost lives in the industry since the beginning of the year.”
Since January 55 mineworkers have been killed in mine accidents. With the increasing deaths and injuries, the Mining Health and Safety Council’s goal of achieving “zero harm” is becoming elusive.
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