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Life vs profit: Zero harm in mining needs shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration

Aug 19 2018 09:46
Neal Froneman

The 150-year history of the South African mining industry is scarred by poor safety records and a high number of fatalities.

While the industry has shown a dramatic improvement in safe production statistics over the past 10 years, one loss of life is one too many.

The improvement is borne out from what was 533 total fatalities in 1995 compared with 199 in 2006. The figure was 88 last year.

Regardless of a reduction in deaths year on year, employees are still losing their lives, and it remains painfully clear that, whenever any incident occurs within our industry, we can do better, we must do better, we will do better.

At Sibanye-Stillwater, our workforce of about 66 000 people is our family. We realise that we have a broad impact as we strive to create value for all stakeholders by running a sustainable business.

This is not just the direct impact in terms of job creation, but also directly and indirectly to the broader community, where close to 1 million people are positively affected through our local economic development, community health and education programmes.

The direct and indirect economic benefits experienced from mining, although reduced as economic activity diversifies in our country, remain a substantial contributor to the national economy.

Since listing in 2013, we have been encouraged by our safe production record with our operations delivering industry-leading safe production relative to our South African gold and platinum deep-level, hard rock mining peers. In fact, last year, after an extensive roll out of a revised safety strategy early in the year, there was a significant improvement in all safety indicators. We achieved 3.4 million fatality-free shifts across the southern Africa region late last year, and the South African gold operations experienced no fatalities for a four-month period until February, when we experienced our first major unfortunate accident.

Regrettably, since February, we have experienced an increase in fatal accidents at some of our mining operations in South Africa. We have been deeply saddened and traumatised to have lost so many Sibanye-Stillwater family members.

We know that working safely is a tribute to the men and women of Sibanye-Stillwater that they, and we, take very seriously.

We acknowledge that we can never replace those colleagues we have lost. We do try to support those families as much as possible. We have a comprehensive employee assistance programme for the family, which includes support for the widow and education support for the children of the deceased until post-matric studies.

These bursars will then become eligible for employment at Sibanye-Stillwater after completing a degree or diploma of their choice. We believe that, in doing so, we will break the cycle of poverty in these families as a mining career will become a choice versus the default replacement of a deceased parent.

Our collective goal, throughout our mining operations, is to improve our safe production results as best as possible and to achieve zero harm for as long as possible.

Zero harm is only achieved through the shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration of our employee families, our communities, our trade union partners and the department of mineral resources.

In collaboration with our mining stakeholders, we have developed a safe production plan aimed at urgently achieving a positive shift in our safe production performance.

The first step of our safe production plan involved the development of a safe production pledge, which emanates from a multistakeholder safety and health summit that was held on May 25. All stakeholders committed to working together to make mining safer, protect jobs and collaborate on all matters pertaining to the health, safety and wellbeing of workers.

The safety pledge was formally signed by all labour unions, the department of mineral resources and Sibanye-Stillwater at a follow-up summit held on June 29.

The pledge reads as follows: “As organised labour, the department of mineral resources and the management of Sibanye-Stillwater, we acknowledge the parties’ statutory obligation and workers’ right that our destiny is shared and commit ourselves, through constructive, transparent collaboration and compliance, to achieving zero harm.”

The third safety summit was set to take place on Wednesday, the multisector task teams were scheduled to continue the work of refining and implementing programmes to enhance safety performance.

Furthermore, Sibanye-Stillwater has made an investment of R27.5 million in the Digital Mining Laboratory (DigiMine) at Wits University.

This state-of-the-art scientific research facility will be an innovation hotbed that will develop information and digital technological solutions designed to mitigate risks, improve safe production, and make mining in South Africa more productive and profitable, positioning our sector at the forefront of life-saving technological advancement.

Through our $500 million (R7.2 billion) streaming agreement with Wheaton International, this has been augmented substantially with an additional injection of R30 million over the next three years.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said mining should be a “sunrise” rather than “sunset” industry, and we believe the DigiMine project will nudge our industry into the fourth industrial revolution.

An extra step involves Sibanye-Stillwater recommitting to and the reinforcement of the rights of employees, under section 23 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, to withdraw their labour if mining conditions are not safe. This is a high priority for me personally and for our leadership team at large.

We have anonymous platforms for employees to report incidents where this right has been flouted and our educational campaigns empower employees to lawfully and responsibly invoke their rights.

Despite the tragic setbacks in our safety performance, we are pleased to note that our Beatrix gold mine recently achieved 2.6 million fatality-free shifts and is fatality free this year.

The steps we are taking are intended to replicate Beatrix’s safety performance across all our mines and restore our industry-leading safe production levels.

The Minerals Council of SA will be embarking on a national campaign of safety and health days in the middle of this month, which is supported by the CEO Zero Harm Forum, where myself and other leaders in the sector will share details of industry initiatives and recommit to improving safety performance.

As a leadership team, we are working tirelessly towards improving our safe production results and to achieving zero harm and zero disabling injuries for as long as possible – and the right for every employee in Sibanye-Stillwater to go home safely every day.

* Neal Froneman is the CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater. Views expressed are his own.

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neal froneman  |  mine deaths  |  mining  |  opinion


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