Explosion needs answers

2008-02-27 00:00

That five workers died at Sunday’s blast at the Assmang plant at Cato Ridge is a tragedy and it’s good that Patrice Motsepe, chairman of African Rainbow Minerals — which owns 50% of Assmang — should have flown from Johannesburg to assess the situation. Workers at Assmang need the reassurance that the incident is being taken seriously at the highest level. Outside observers will note that Motsepe takes a responsibly humanitarian approach to the disaster and hasn’t resorted to the mudslinging and buckpassing we’ve come to expect from many in authority when things go wrong.

The dangers to which workers at Assmang may be exposed had already come to public attention because of a Labour Department inquiry into 40 alleged cases of manganese poisoning: overexposure to manganese may affect the central nervous system, causing manganism, a condition resembling Parkinson’s disease.

Together with this, the blast raises questions about safety measures and procedures at the plant. Are these strictly in keeping with world standards? If so, how is it that staff may be exposed to unsafe levels of a dangerous substance? And how is it that, as has been reported, the blast was the result of water leaking into a furnace which, having been designated unsuitable for use, should not have been switched on? How was it that a decision taken during the day shift was apparently not passed on to the night staff? This lapse in communication had lethal consequences, and to the victims and their families, it doesn’t matter if it was an isolated case or if it reflects a general state of poor information flow within the plant.

The causes of the blast must be investigated at once. The visitor to Assmang, greeted by a sign bearing the words: “Safety begins with me”, might believe the company to be commendably safety-conscious. A public inquiry, followed by the rigorous implementation of up-to-date safety measures, might actually help make the statement true.

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