Dying to breathe

2018-06-17 12:19
Sibanye Gold Ikamva shaft where four miners died this week PHOTO: Tebogo Letsie

Sibanye Gold Ikamva shaft where four miners died this week PHOTO: Tebogo Letsie

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They didn’t see it coming: sweating in over 35°C heat, battling for oxygen and hoping to catch a breath in one of the dark tunnels. But they never lived to tell their story.

According to National Union of Mineworkers health and safety national secretary Peter Bailey, the air needs to contain 20% oxygen to sustain human life, but the five mine workers did not stand a chance when those levels dropped to 13%. They met their deaths deep in the earth’s belly at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Kloof Ikamva shaft this week.

This was the latest fatal underground accident that hurled Sibanye-Stillwater mining back into the news headlines a little more than a month after seven mine workers died after a seismic event at its Driefontein operation’s Masakhane shaft.

Explaining how its five employees met their deaths, Sibanye-Stillwater earlier this week said that the men had entered an abandoned area on Monday.

It has since become clear thar the workers walked into an area that did not have working ventilation.

Unions have argued that no worker was supposed to be allowed into any area underground until ventilation had been turned on. They also said areas like the one where these workers died are supposed to be cordoned off and sealed at all times.

However, Bailey said that, in this case, they were informed by the mine that there was a ventilation door through which the workers walked before they met their fate.

Three bodies were discovered after the incident was reported on Monday. The fourth body was found the following day, after an all-night locate and retrieve mission.

The fifth mine worker’s body was found in the early hours of Thursday.

The bodies were found in different locations, which could suggest that the men ran in different directions when they realised they were in terrible danger and were hoping to reach a place with enough oxygen to stay alive.

“They all died horrific deaths in a combination of heat and low oxygen levels. They ran out of oxygen and died while trying to reach other areas with the hope of being able to breathe,” Bailey said.

“No one was supposed to be there in the first place but when we seek answers, we get different stories, making everything complicated.”

Bailey said his union had its own suspicions.

“Our suspicion is that Sibanye-Stillwater wanted to go back and reopen that abandoned area for mining. We understand there are minutes from a meeting where such a decision was made. It is possible they sent a team there to prepare the area without any risk assessment being done first,” he said.

HOW THE OTHER THREE ESCAPED DEATH

Bailey has revealed that three men, including a safety representative, returned to the surface and left the other five mine workers to continue with their walk into the abandoned area.

“We are told the three men could not keep up with the others and grew tired. They decided to walk back, and later reported their five colleagues missing,” he said.

Bailey further alleged the team was not familiar with the working area into which they were sent.

“We understand a team leader and a mine worker from the initial team in that working space were suspended, the remaining team members were withdrawn and a new team was brought in.

“The expectation is that the investigation will reveal whether the senior team members were suspended because they refused to go into a risky area so a new team was brought in,” he said.

“The norm is that, when a new team is brought into an unfamiliar working area, there must be someone who is familiar with it to induct them.

“In this case, the five men were led by an acting shift boss who also died and is believed to have not been familiar with that area himself.”

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

While Sibanye-Stillwater maintained that it was not immediately clear how the deceased came to be in an abandoned area, Bailey said they were not hoping to get much truth on the matter as the probe into the incident continues.

“The union was told not to speak to the safety representative, but we strongly believe the mining company has already had a chat with him.

“The safety representative and others know exactly who ordered them to go into a dangerous area from which the three of them withdrew, but now they could have been promised something to give a different version,” he said.

“For us, the truth has gone with those who lost their lives. They will never be able to tell their story and explain why they continued walking into a risky area even when others threw in the towel.”

There have been reports from unions that mine workers were forced to risk their lives while doing their jobs and when they refused to take orders, they were charged or threatened with losing their jobs.

Sibanye-Stillwater this week said this kind of allegation would also be part its investigation to determine whether anyone, including the deceased, could have been forced to do something against their will.

Sibanye-Stillwater spokesperson Henrika Ninham did not want to go into details about what could have led to the deaths of the mine workers, saying an investigation will be undertaken in collaboration with the department of mineral resources and the unions.

“We are aware that it was said that eight people initially entered the abandoned area, but we will have to interview employees, understand timelines and examine information to understand the events preceding the time that the five employees went missing before we can make any statements in this regard,” she said.

Read more on:    mining
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