Coronavirus safety regulations for mines to be published this month, court rules

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A code of practice setting minimum standards for health and safety in mines during the coronavirus pandemic must be put in place this month, the Labour Court has ruled.

In a judgment issued on Friday 1 May, the court set aside government's decision not to require employers to prepare and implement a code of practice on the Covid-19 pandemic, or issue guidelines in terms of the Mine Health and Safety Act.

Judge Andre van Niekerk directed the Department of Mineral Resources to publish a notice in the Government Gazette by no later than 18 May, containing health and safety guidelines and requiring employers to prepare and implement codes of practice to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on employees "or persons who may be directly affected by the disease at the mine".

The judgment further stated that prior to publication of the guidelines, there should be consultation with the Mine Health and Safety Council, and meaningful engagement with the relevant trade unions and employer organisations.

"[A]ll available expert advice" should also be consulted, it added.  

Until the codes of practice are finalised, all employers must, as a minimum, comply with standard operating procedures, provided these are consistent with state of disaster regulations.

An urgent application had been brought by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in a bid to force the department of mineral resources and energy to implement issue binding measures to ensure the protection of mineworkers against Covid-19.

Respondents in the case were Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe, the Minerals Council, Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the Chief Inspector of Mines David Msiza.

On Wednesday, Advocate Mark Wesley, acting for the department of mineral resources, had told the court - which heard the matter virtually - that the minister's decision was "binding" and that AMCU had not been able to provide evidence that employers had not provided adequate protection.

The mining industry is one of several sectors returning employees to work under lockdown alert Level 4, though mining had already started resuming production under amended regulations during Level 5. As economic activity continues to reopen, open cast mines are able to resume full production, with underground mines limited to 50%.

Mining companies such as Impala Platinum, Sibanye-Stillwater and Harmony began stepping up production in April. Some, like DRDGOLD, have said employee safety is a priority.

DRDGOLD CEO Niël Pretorius previously said the company had taken guidance from the DMRE, the department of health and the Minerals Council to maintain the health of employees.

AMCU, for its part, said it was bringing the matter to court because it "cannot allow its members to report for duty in circumstances where it has not been privy to any framework or ramp-up plans, and cannot be assured that its members are safe."

"While AMCU has consistently declared its support for the mines ramping up production, this can only take place once national minimum standards are put in place to ensure the health and safety of workers during the Covid-19 pandemic," the union said on Thursday.

"As AMCU, we want our State to take up its role as regulator," said union president Joseph Mathunjwa. 

Judgment on costs was reserved.

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