Court criticises safety officials

Mining industry welcomes judgment

In a scathing judgment, the Labour Court has overturned a safety stoppage at Anglo Gold Ashanti’s Kopanangmine and addressed the core concern mining companies have about the way the Department of Mineral Resources’ safety officials implement stoppages.

For the past two years, mining executives have become increasingly outspoken in their frustration with the way safety has been handled, with shutdowns ordered by department inspectors of entire mines for violations of the Mine Health and Safety Act in sections of the operations.

The Chamber of Mines has estimated the cost of the safety stoppages between 2012 and last year at R13.6-billion in lost revenue, excluding the losses incurred in restarting mines.

The trend has nearly doubled the cost put on shutdowns, rising to R4.8-billion last year fromR2.6-billion in 2012.

“We believe that the Labour Court has, in this case, clarified the limits on the powers of the inspectorate,” chamber chief executive Roger Baxter said.

It was in line with the industry’s approach in which it had sought to persuade the department to avoid unjustified stoppages that had been compounding losses in already trying financial times, Baxter said.

Royal Bafokeng Platinum has said the recent sharp increase in the frequency and severity of these orders, which did not appear to be addressing non-compliance with safety standards, was very disappointing and it could no longer offer the same acceptance and support of these orders as it had in the past.

In a judgment handed down on November 4, Judge Andre van Niekerk said the order to shut Kopanang, near Orkney in North West, on October 17 at a cost ofR9.5-million a day due to violations involving explosives and tramming at the 44 level of the mine was disproportionate.

The 91 affected workers represented just 2% of the mine’s 4 218employees and the 28 railway line switches that came under scrutiny were a fraction of the206 switches used by Kopanang’s trams.

“It is patently clear therefore that [the affected] 44 level comprises a very small portion of the total operation and conditions there are not axiomatically representative of conditions else where on the mine,” Van Niekerksaid.

He ordered the lifting of the safety stoppage of the entire mine, but said the suspension of the offending level should be retained.

“The instructions in so far as they relate to a prohibition across the entire mine in respect of explosives and tramming were out of all proportion to the issues identified . . .“At worst, they should have been confined to level 44,” Van Niekerk said.

The legal fraternity welcomed the judgment. Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr specialist Allan Reid said: “The judgment is an indictment of the manner in which certain officials execute their duties.

“The judge’s sentiments echo the views of the mining industry as well as the legal counsel who have to deal with the consequences of these abusive practices ona daily basis,” he said.

“Enforcement issues are all too frequently approached in an aggressive, heavy-handed and ill considered manner.” AngloGold chief executive Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan said the world’s third-largest gold miner had lost 82 800 ounces of gold in South Africa to safety stoppages so far this year.

“This judgment will provide clear guidelines,” Venkatakrishnan said.

“You can’t just stop and start these big, deep-level mines.

“There are consequences to doing that.”

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