Johannesburg - The seven mineworkers who perished at a Sibanye-Stillwater mine could have been deceived by a manager, who has been slammed for putting company profits first.
It has emerged that a Sibanye- Stillwater manager allegedly misled the workers to continue working after the first ground collapse was heard on Thursday, three hours prior to the fatal incident.
This was disclosed on Sunday when The Star interviewed a group of mineworkers at the Driefontein shaft in Carletonville, where a seismic event (measuring 2.2 on the Richter Scale) caused a fall of ground in an operating stope on Thursday, trapping 13 workers.
The company confirmed in a statement on Saturday that all 13 miners had been accounted for, but that seven had died.
Mineworkers accused the company’s managers of putting profits before their safety, claiming that the deaths could have been avoided if proper safety precautions had been followed.
A miner, who was working on the other side of the shaft, said the first signs of trouble started around 10am, with a mild tremor.
“The control room, where possible rock movements are first detected, alerted the shaft manager about what had occurred.
“But the manager dismissed this, saying the movement had occurred on the ‘madala’ side (disused part of the shaft). He said it was still safe to carry on working, as the ‘madala’ side was far away.”
The group carried on working until the second seismic event occurred at around 1pm, which resulted in the 13 miners being trapped between rocks. By Friday morning, 10 miners had been rescued, with four confirmed dead.
But Sibanye-Stillwater spokesperson James Wellsted said the first surface movement took place about 2.5km from the fatal one.
“It was too far to have had an impact on that specific area (outside the zone of influence). The second seismic event happened right in front of the area they were working in. That was the one that caused the damage,” he said.
Another employee said the company’s proto team, which specialises in underground rescue missions, had been lax in dealing with Thursday’s incident. The worker had just finished his shift and was on his way to catch a lift on station 40 when the incident happened. On reaching the surface, he met members of the proto team, who were making their way to the scene of the ground fall.
“When I got home I couldn’t sleep properly and I was happy the next morning when management tasked winch drivers to go underground to help with the rescue operation. But when we arrived on the accident scene, we found a proto team member removing rocks with their hands.
“We spent some time arguing with them to use winches to lift the rock, but they did not have one,” said the worker.
The miners claimed that the proto team, who earned about R1000 an hour on top of their salaries, usually abused the system by stretching the rescue hours in order to pocket more money.
“They could have rescued these miners quicker or even saved more lives had they gone down with a winch. When we got there, they had only rescued six miners with one dead after 15 hours of working. We managed to retrieve three bodies in the short space of time we were there on Friday,” said the employee, who has done two similar missions in the past.
Cosatu said it was alarmed by the poor safety record at Sibanye Gold operations, and pleaded with the government to take stern action against the company.
“This happens barely a couple of months after two workers died at another Sibanye operation, while 1100 workers were trapped underground for more than 20 hours at another Sibanye-Stillwater mining operation in Beatrix, Free State.
“Sibanye-Stillwater’s deteriorating safety record is alarming, considering that this is the company that was one of the safest in the gold sector in 2015,” the worker pointed out.
“The Mineral Resources and Labour departments need to take this deteriorating safety record seriously by conducting a thorough investigation,” the labour federation’s spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla, said.
Cosatu and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are expected to picket at the offices of the Chamber of on Thursday to demand drastic action against the deteriorating mine safety standards in the country.
The Department of Mineral Resources said seismic events accounted for 30% of last year’s deaths at mines, with Sibanye a major contributor.
Minister Gwede Mantashe has put together a team comprising the councils for Geoscience, Mine Health and Safety, Scientific and Industrial Research as well as rock engineers and seismicity experts to look into this as a matter of urgency in order to assist the industry to better anticipate and deal with seismic activities.