Cape Town - The civil suit against Sasol, for damages relating to lung diseases, totals R80m and it should serve as a warning for the entire coal mining industry, human rights lawyer Richard Spoor told Fin24.
Spoor is leading the case of 22 current and former miners who worked at coal mines of Sasol [JSE:SOL] at sites near Secunda in Mpumalanga. He filed an action in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg seeking damages after the miners were allegedly exposed to coal dust and contracted lung diseases.
Coal dust can cause lung diseases including coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
"The total of all 22 claims is about R80m," said Spoor, while the value of the plaintiffs’ claims ranges from R800 000 to R10m. He said this amount is made up of loss of earnings, medical costs, pain and suffering and loss of amenities of life.
It is not about winning
"Our target is not winning cases, our target is securing fair compensation for mine workers, whether they are our clients or not our clients," he said. "The objective is a social objective."
Spoor is of the view that there has been no accountability for that last 100 years. "Workers' lives and their health have been really very cheap." He said holding mining giants accountable will provide an incentive for them to create safe and healthy working environments for workers.
"When you mine coal, you generate a lot of dust, which is dangerous and is likely to harm people unless you take measures to protect them."
Spoor said doing any work in coal mines is extremely dangerous and that the only way to make it safe is by limiting workers' exposure to dust.
'No safety at Sasol'
"We are saying that the mine didn't do that and the fact that these men are sick is evidence that they didn't do that. So just the fact that they are sick is evidence about the mine's failure to do what it had to do, which was to control the dust and reduce it to a level that didn't endanger people’s health and safety."
The laws regulating mining, noted Spoor, is that no one should work in a workplace where there is visible dust. "You can't work eight, nine or ten hours per day in an environment where dust is floating in the air."
He said there are also other regulations about keeping road and travel ways wet to keep the dust suppressed. "They [the laws] don't say you must take reasonable measures. It says unambiguously you must keep the roads wet. There must not be dust hanging in the air," said Spoor.
'We were covered in dust'
"We are going to produce evidence from these miners and many of their work colleagues to say routinely that wasn't the case. We went underground, we came up and we were covered in dust. If we patted down our clothing, clouds of dust would come out of it," he said.
"They breached the regulations and the laws that were in place about coal mining in South Africa. As a result of their breach of these rules, they are strictly liable for the harm."
Spoor said this is a strong case and that he does do not need to prove that Sasol was negligent.
"There is no need for us to prove that the mine was negligent, all we need to demonstrate is that they broke the rules and as a result of that these people became ill. We believe it is a very good case."
'Sasol puts safety first'
Fin24 contacted Sasol on Sunday for comment on the case.
Spokesperson Alex Anderson said that the mine needs time to study the documents. "We are currently assessing the law suit."
Anderson noted that Sasol takes the protection of the health and safety of workers very seriously.
"Sasol Mining continuously adheres to the Mine Health and Safety Act, as well as all other applicable legislation."
He said the mining house is committed to promoting a healthy workforce.
Spoor added that he does not believe that other coal mines, including Total, Exxaro [JSE:EXX] and BHP Billiton [JSE:BIL] are in a better situation than Sasol.
"I have no doubt at all that the conditions of these other mine companies are not much better than Sasol. There is nothing to suggest that Sasol is any worse or any better than these other companies," he said.