Mining firms’ silicosis sins


More than 1 000 South African mine workers are diagnosed with a debilitating lung disease each year as a result of the dust they inhale underground, which suggests that “many sins” are hidden in the figures on dust levels that the mines release.

This is one of the shocking findings revealed in a presentation to the parliamentary portfolio committee on mineral resources about the compensation system for mine workers with silicosis.

Silicosis is a disease that results from the inhalation of silica dust, which makes mine workers vulnerable to tuberculosis.

In 2014, at least 1 063 cases of silicosis were reported by South African mines, and 6 577 cases of occupational diseases were reported.

Professor Rodney Ehrlich, who is connected to the University of Cape Town’s department of public health and family medicine and has treated sick mine workers for more than 30 years, was asked by the committee to make a presentation on why mine workers currently resort to the courts for compensation for silicosis.

In his presentation, Ehrlich explained that the system of compensation for mine workers with silicosis “is in a crisis”.

According to the latest figures from the department of mineral resources, 95% of mines currently report that they are under the prescribed dust level of 0.1mg per cubic metre.

“The thing is, can we believe them? Over the past 20 years, researchers began to ask why there is still so much silicosis if the mines say they have the dust under control.”

Ehrlich said the research found that the methods used by mines were not reliable.

“We are talking of thousands of measurements. When you start to calculate the average, you can hide a multitude of sins ... We need individual tests.”

The committee responded in shock to Ehrlich’s presentation on Wednesday, and especially criticised mine owners who “earn a fat salary every month but do not care about mine workers’ lives”.

Ehrlich’s findings in his presentation include:

. That there is a backlog of about 8 000 claims awaiting medical certification at the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases;

. That there is a further backlog of about 104 000 payments of valid claims by the Compensation for Occupational Diseases commissioner where the mine worker cannot be traced;

. That the fund for the compensation of mine workers, which is funded by the mines, last submitted financial statements four years ago;

. That this fund would probably also be insolvent if every mine worker who is entitled to compensation made a claim; and

. That the amount mine workers are compensated is calculated on a maximum salary of R3 000 a month, while the average mine worker earns about R4 500 a month.

Ehrlich said most mine workers were unaware of their rights under the Occupational Diseases in Mine and Works Act, especially in rural areas.

This dispensation originated when British mine workers in the gold mines started getting lung diseases here more than 100 years ago.

Mine workers consequently formed their own compensation fund, which is separate from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, which is applicable to all other workers.

But the benefits that workers get under the occupational injuries act are much better than those that the mine workers get.

Mine workers who qualify for first-degree compensation can expect about R35 000, while in the case of second-degree compensation, the more serious of the two, it is about R108 000.

Ehrlich said one of the most common questions he gets is why mines do not simply give the mine workers masks to wear, but this is an indication that all the other methods of preventing dust inhalation do not work.

“Masks are extremely uncomfortable and hamper communication. Remember, you’re talking about nine hours, 4km underground, in 35°C heat ... In the industry, you’re more likely to find a mask on top of someone’s head than over his mouth.”

Motswaledi Matlala, an ANC MP who serves on the committee, said drastic action was needed to remedy the situation.

“We will sit with this problem for the next 100 years and they [the CEOs of mines] will continue telling us it is a work in progress while they are enjoying their fat salaries.”

The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Jan Esterhuizen said: “The gold mining companies have been required by law for decades to take responsibility for lung diseases, but they have never done so.”


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