An even bigger fight underground: The battle against Covid-19 in SA's mines

In the belly of the earth in South Africa, thousands of mine workers toil. Stretching up to four kilometres beneath the surface, these are some of the deepest mines in the world. And here, the fight against the coronavirus – already an uneasy task – takes on a different meaning.

Barely a month after a limited return to production, infections have started rolling in, sparking anxiety among executives and unions alike.

"Covid-19 is potentially a manageable challenge, but it is more challenging in an environment such as mining," said David Rees, Emeritus Professor Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Last week, Impala Platinum revealed that a "cluster" of 19 cases of Covid-19 had been detected at its Marula mine in Limpopo. The infections were detected during screening and protocols required by government.

The workers were asymptomatic, highlighting the challenges of both monitoring and preventing new infections in confined underground mining.

On Tuesday, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy published guidelines for a mandatory Code of Practice for the mitigation and management of Covid-19 in the mining industry. Failure to comply with the guidelines - which, among other things, requires companies to conduct screening and testing of employees for the virus - constitutes a criminal offence.

Mining companies have been urged to keep employees with underlying conditions that put them at high risk of getting infected with the coronavirus away from work as the industry returns to production.

But the mining environment makes it particularly difficult to adhere to practical safety protocols, such as physical distancing and regular washing of hands, while working deep underground and chasing production targets, noted Rees.

"This one is going to be interesting to observe, but the bigger mines which are well resourced are likely to adhere to the regulation.  I worry about the smaller companies which have limited resources. There will always be rogue elements," he said.

"Here we are talking about a chain of events that need to be monitored to ensure the safety of workers, from communities, transport system to the mines," he said.

With the devastating health crisis caused by silicosis infections still a fresh memory, mining safety in the country is not particularly bathed in glory. The debilitating lung disease, caused by exposure to fine dust normally found in gold mines, infected thousands of people, resulting in the country's largest class action by former mineworkers.

 'No idea' how they'll do it

Former mineworker and union leader, Frans Baleni said mechanised mines and open cast facilities were slightly better equipped, with better environments, than deep underground mining.

"I have no idea how they are going to do it," he said, referring to the safety guidelines. He said distancing would be impractical for those working in a stope with manual drilling, where it is necessary to work with a helper.

"The underground conditions in gold mines can be very hot and that would make the use of the mask a bit challenging.

"My assumption is that the implementation of safety regulations might slow down production," he added.

Human resources nightmare

Moreover, a cage that takes workers to their underground workstations can take between 100-150 people, who will spend hours toiling in confined spaces.

Baleni suggested that companies which are already operating with 50% personnel may need to reschedule their shifts to allow for adequate physical distancing in buses that transport workers to mines to cages that go underground.

"I foresee a human resources nightmare for companies, but companies have to adhere to these regulations in order to protect lives."

Concerned about the rising number of infections among mine workers at site in Limpopo, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has called for the shutdown of all mines in the province.

The union cited the 19 cases at Implats and another 30 cases at Dwarsrivier chrome mine, but a  representative of the mine told Fin24 that the company was in the process of verifying the number of infected employee.

Modikwa platinum mine, a joint venture between African Rainbow Minerals and Anglo American Platinum, has also reported an infection, according to NUM. The union said it was not in favour of the blanket approach that has been granted by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy in allowing all mines to resume work.

"We argue that each mine should have been given a directive to put measures first and later granted permission when all measures are in place," said Phillip Mankge.

Implats said it had not discovered other new cases, and there were currently no recorded infections at its Zimbabwe operations, but a total of 25 cases have been seen at the Impala Canada operation.

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