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WHAT IT MEANS: Mine deaths from: illegal activities, younger employees, complacency, carelessness.

The deaths of at least three illegal miners in an underground fire in a disused mine at Langlaagte this month is the latest tragedy highlighting issues around mine safety.

This is the second reported fatal accident involving illegal miners, called zama-zamas, this year. In April, five men were killed in a rock fall at the disused Klipwal gold mine in KwaZulu Natal. Last year there were numerous reports of illegal miners being shot in turf wars around Springs, to the east of Johannesburg, and Roodepoort, to the west.

It has not been a good few months for the formal mining sector either. It is too early to say what the final industry fatality figures will be this year, but several companies have reported a sudden increase in fatal accidents compared with last year.

Last year 77 people were killed on SA mines, which was down from 84 in 2014 and compares with 270 in 2003, when the industry committed to bringing down deaths by 20% a year to an ultimate goal of zero.

In July, minerals minister Mosebenzi Zwane said at a health and safety conference held at Sibanye Gold’s Driefontein operations that there were 49 deaths in SA mines in the first six months of the year, up from 42 in the same period last year. He described this as a "serious setback". The minister said the department of mineral resources would add 38 health and safety inspectors to increase compliance and host a mine health and safety summit this year to review progress.

There’s a huge difference between the multiple deaths of illegal miners and the deaths on mines licensed by the department of mineral resources. Licensed mines are subject to strict safety procedures, frequent inspections and stoppages for sometimes minor breaches of regulations.

The Chamber of Mines says illegal miners, who on occasion invade sections of legal operations, pose a serious risk to themselves and others, including the volunteers who go to their rescue after an accident. They also have a harmful effect on the environment and introduce criminal elements into communities around the mines.

Neil Metzer, security co-ordinator at the Chamber of Mines, says members of the chamber reported 970 incidents of illegal mining last year at surface and underground operations. The number of nonmine employees arrested was 2,710 and 71 mine employees were arrested. So far this year, 567 incidents have been reported, with 2,485 arrests of nonmine employees and 32 of mine employees. The statistics show the incidence is decreasing, but the number of people involved is increasing, Metzer says.

Illegal mining is rising in SA because of increased unemployment and poverty, and it is often organised by criminal syndicates, the chamber says.

In the formal sector, the increase in fatalities this year is hard to ascribe to any single reason, mining executives say.

Gold Fields recently reported its first person killed at South Deep since May 2015, as a result of a fall of ground after a minor quake. Impala Platinum (Implats), which reported no deaths between May and November last year, has since reported two people killed at Mimosa mine in Zimbabwe, and six altogether in a fire at Rustenburg 14 shaft and a fall of ground at Rustenburg 1 shaft. Sibanye Gold reported eight deaths in the first six months of the year, twice as many as in the same period last year.

Eric Gcilitshana, head of health and safety at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), says fatality statistics this year were swelled by a few incidents of multiple fatalities, for example at Implats. He says an examination of section 54 safety stoppage reports shows mines are not supervising safety compliance. Workers sometimes take short cuts, for example they fail to make an area safe after blasting, and that is where they need to be watched more closely.

Johan Theron, group executive of corporate relations at Implats, says he cannot comment on broad industry trends as he does not have access to all the information. But it is noteworthy that the industry has made significant improvements in its safety performance over many years, unequalled in any other mining jurisdiction.

Implats has 20 large operations, 17 of which had no fatal accidents in the past year and set new safety records.

"Unfortunately, and regrettably, two incidents this year were catastrophic in the sense that both resulted in multiple fatalities, with six employees fatally injured," Theron says.

"From a human and statistical point of view this is obviously very disappointing, but it should not distract us from the fact that we have made major improvements in safe production across the group over a number of years and, despite all the challenges, we are firmly of the view that our mines have never been safer to work on."

Implats CEO Terence Goodlace has instituted new initiatives to change the safety culture at a personal level.

"Basically it is about inculcating a set of values and risk behaviours that not only drive personal safety, but also compel each person to constantly be aware of and seek the safety and wellbeing of co-workers," Theron says.

"This change is from a dependent safety culture, where my principle motivation is to focus on safety when I know someone is observing me, to an interdependent culture, where I am always motivated to work safely regardless of supervision, to the point that I also become my brother’s keeper."

Peter Turner, a veteran miner who was appointed Sibanye’s senior vice-president of safety, health and the environment in August, says if he knew all the reasons for the deterioration in safety performance it would be easy to address, but human behaviour is involved and the reasons are complex.

Some of the underlying reasons could be that complacency has crept in, or that younger mineworkers are more inclined to ask questions than their older colleagues, who are accustomed to following instructions.

He says last year was not an outstanding year for Sibanye on safety, and there was an increase in nonfatal incidents.

Sibanye has conducted some self-examination, with workshops held for company executives and line managers to identify problems and solutions. It has come up with an 11-point plan that includes elements of leadership, awareness, behaviour and management capability. Some improvement is already noticeable.

Gcilitshana suspects workers are under pressure to achieve production targets. He says the NUM has been arguing for some time that the whole system of incentives needs to be revised. Employees have the right to refuse to work in a dangerous situation, but if they are given a task to do, and they have taken similar risks before, they will do it.

Turner disagrees. He says the mine’s most productive teams also have the best safety records because they are sharp and focused.

Safety is a fundamental component of the incentives offered to teams, so if there is a safety breach they lose their bonuses.

Turner says Sibanye is reviewing some of its systems and moving away from an approach of risk audits to one where safety officers are held more accountable. Safety is not merely about having the right systems and administration in place; it needs a holistic approach that requires leadership at all levels. Sibanye is renewing its safety message and will be communicating it to employees in a way that keeps them engaged and energised, he says.