Silicosis case could cripple SA

2013-01-13 10:01

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Class action lawsuit against local gold mining firms has the potential to cost billions in damages

A planned class action lawsuit involving thousands of former mine workers is likely to be “a kick in the stomach for an industry that’s already on its knees”, says a leading economist.

Papers filed in the South Gauteng High Court bring the massive industry ever closer to facing a multibillion rand class action lawsuit brought by thousands of former miners who claim to have contracted silicosis on the country’s mines.

The application for class action status was filed by Richard Spoor, an attorney who has taken instructions from more than 17?000 former mine workers and spouses of deceased mine workers who claim to have contracted silicosis in South Africa’s gold mines since 1965.

A massive, cross-border effort to track down potential claimants in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and Lesotho – who worked in South African mines under the migrant labour system – could see this number increase significantly.

The application argues that South Africa’s gold mining industry is guilty of a century-long “fundamental failure” to reduce dust levels, which has caused an epidemic of “suffering and harm likely unprecedented in industrial history”.

Thirty gold mines and parent companies are cited in the notice of motion, including the biggest players in the industry, Harmony Gold, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, DRD Gold and Anglo Gold.

In his affidavit, filed on behalf of the miners, Spoor cites legislation, regulation and commission reports dating back to 1902 to show that, had South Africa’s gold mining companies adhered to the rules, “the epidemic of silicosis and silico-tuberculosis among South African gold mine workers could and would have been prevented”.

Spoor argues the reasons for the industry’s “extensive non-compliance are multifold, but cost and the search for profit weigh heavily”.

In an interview with City Press on Friday, Spoor said the law that is supposed to “hold people to account has failed totally. There is no accountability whatsoever”.

The court action quotes statistical studies, including:

»?A 1997 study in Botswana that found a prevalence rate of between 22% and 36% of dust-related lung disease among former mine workers;

»?A 1998 research study in Libode, Eastern Cape, which also found a prevalence rate of between 22% and 36%; and

»?A 2004 study found that 23.9% of black South African gold miners contracted silicosis.

Spoor said the actual number of miners with silicosis currently being reported was probably less than 10% of actual cases.

At the centre of the case is what experts call an “illusion” that has been maintained by gold mining companies for over 100 years.

Professor Jock McCulloch, an Australian historian who has researched the history of silicosis in South Africa, said this “complex fiction” was the result of underreporting the rates of silicosis among black miners under white minority rule.

“For almost a hundred years South Africa’s gold mines claimed to be leading the world in safety, medical surveillance and compensation, but a careful reading of the history suggests this was an illusion,” said McCulloch. “The industry’s failure to create safe workplaces, and to compensate migrant workers for occupational diseases, underpinned its commercial success and allowed the costs of production to be shifted to rural communities.”

In terms of legislation passed as early as 1915, all miners were subject to examination by medical officers outside of the employ of the mines.

But in the case of black migrant workers, who were most often exposed to the dustiest areas of the mines, the duty of medical examination was outsourced to medical officers employed by the mines themselves.

The 1996 Leon Commission of Inquiry into health and safety on mines found there was a “general failure to collect and use data effectively”.

The commission was critical of the Chamber of Mines’ two-and-a-half page submission on occupational diseases, saying it was “difficult to understand why no meaningful attempt was made to provide the commission with comprehensive information about the trends in the incidences of the diseases of importance”.

Dawie Roodt, an economist at Efficient Group, said the court case would likely be “a kick in the stomach for an industry that’s already on its knees”.

Roodt said the mining industry was going through a “difficult time” and the case may influence investor perceptions.

Alan Fine, spokesperson for AngloGold Ashanti, said lawyers for the company were still studying the papers that had been served on the company, but its general intent was to defend the case on the merits.

The Chamber of Mines could not be reached for comment.

What is silicosis?

Silicosis, known to miners as sifuba, is a disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica – quartz – dust.

The toxic dust settles on lung tissue and results in the formation of scar tissue.

Over time, the disease reduces lung function and leads to increasingly serious shortness of breath, coughing and chest pains.

Silicosis increases the likelihood of a person contracting TB, which is a frequent cause of silicosis-related death.

Crystalline silica dust is generated and released into the air by many of the processes associated with mining and is found in the Witwatersrand and Free State gold fields.

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