Sibanye-Stillwater's Masakhane mine in Driefontein where four workers died following a seismic event. Picture: Mathews Baloyi/ANA

Johannesburg - Trade union Solidarity has expressed grave concern about safety in South African mines in the wake of Thursday's seismic event at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Masakhane shaft at Driefontein, near Carletonville in Gauteng, which claimed seven lives and injured another six miners.

There is particular concern about seismic activities in deep-level mines that cause falls of ground leading to mining fatalities and injuries, Solidarity deputy general secretary for occupational health and safety Paul Mardon said.

Although the incident still had to be investigated in full, indications were that it could have been preceded by seismic activity and that it was followed by further seismic activity, he said.

“Despite major personal danger, the search and rescue team managed to locate six miners and brought them to safety. Sadly, seven miners have lost their lives, though.”

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Despite the many steps taken to ensure mine safety, and a constant decline in mining fatalities and mine injuries up to 2016, Solidarity was concerned about the increase in fatalities in mines since 2017.

“Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe has not yet announced the official health and safety figures for mines in 2017, but according to provisional indications 86 miners died in South African mines in 2017, compared to the 73 mining fatalities in 2016; the 77 in 2015; and the 84 in 2014. Preliminary figures for 2018 also look bleak with 33 fatalities recorded to date, compared to the 28 during the corresponding period last year, and the 25 during the corresponding period in 2016,” Mardon said.

A decrease in the number of falls of ground had been reported. However, the increase in fatalities due to falls of ground was cause for concern, he said.

“It shows that the severity of falls of ground is on the increase. In 2016, falls of ground in South African mines totalled 459 (of which 249 occurred in gold mines), compared to the preliminary total of 437 (of which 213 occurred in gold mines) in 2017. According to preliminary figures for 2018, 116 falls of ground (43 of which were in gold mines) occurred to date already, compared to the 156 (79 of which took place in gold mines) during the corresponding period in 2017,” Mardon said.

Solidarity also expressed concern about the lack of high-level talks between the various stakeholders in the mining industry to promote health and safety. “The former minister of mineral resources [Mosebenzi Zwane] postponed high-level talks in this regard and no such talks have yet taken place with the new minister [Mantashe],” Mardon said.

"Solidarity reminds employees of their legal right to withdraw from unsafe working conditions, and urges them to do so should it be necessary. Employers are also urged to respect the exercising of this right. Solidarity once again calls on employers to make concerted and renewed attempts to prevent mining fatalities and calls on all players at all levels in mining to accept full responsibility for themselves and for each other in a mature spirit of collaboration and interdependence," Mardon said.

On Saturday, Sibanye-Stillwater said all 13 employees who were trapped underground on Thursday had been recovered by mine rescue personnel.

"Regrettably, the last three employees who were recovered passed away from their injuries, bringing the total number of fatalities as a result of the seismic event to seven," Sibanye-Stillwater said in a statement.

The six employees who were successfully rescued were in a stable condition in hospital. The families of the employees had been contacted and were receiving necessary support and counselling.

"The board and management of Sibanye-Stillwater wishes to express its sincere condolences to friends and family of the deceased employees and those impacted by this tragic event. A thorough investigation by management and the department of mineral resources (DMR) and other stakeholders will be performed and all efforts will be made to ensure to prevent incidents of this nature occurring in future.

"We thank everyone involved in the rescue operations, especially the mine rescue teams and our own employees, who have worked tirelessly for the last two-and-a-half days to rescue our colleagues under extremely challenging conditions, Sibanye-Stillwater said.

African News Agency/ANA