Mining safety has been largely placed on the shoulders of the government. However, should it be left to the government and mining companies to implement regulations or should the workers play a large role?

A safety audit released recently stated that mines in South Africa have a disappointing level of safety compliance. Nicolaas Herholdt, executive at Deloitte, told delegates at the Mining Indaba that the company has conducted research to find out what causes the mines to be unsafe if they have safety regulations which are being implemented.

The audit on 355 mines nationwide revealed that mine safety compliance was below target at just 66 percent, and the Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica, who issued the report, called for even tougher measures to reduce mine deaths.

Deloitte stresses that there is an over-focus on compliance, saying that as a result there are many unintended consequences. One worker died after he had finished filling in the compliance form, so what went wrong? People can be chasing compliance for the sake of it, and there is no genuine commitment to safety, Herholdt said. It is reduced to simply ticking another box to be checked on a compliance form. When a system is over-simplified it runs the risk of falling into chaos.

Herholdt says that there are several reasons mining continues to result in fatalities even though compliance regulations are in place. Tensions between miners may at times result in direct conflict. We were told the story how a fight would start when people were pushed around in the cage at the beginning of a shift. The tension would continue to build in the workplace and could result in distractions and sometimes the lack of ‘looking out for one another.'

The audit report recommended further maintenance of infrastructure at mines, developing a national seismic network, training of miners on safety, and investments in skills development. However Deloitte feels that it should go a step further. Our research focussed on developing new insights into the issue of safety, and not in documenting many of the proven areas of best practice.

Some organisations are starting to look at these issues differently and are experimenting with very different and sometimes counter-intuitive solutions, like appointing church leaders to intervene during fights amongst the workers. They have done this without compromising the integrity of the safety basics that have to be in place such as compliance with codes of practise.

Sonjica had said that she did not have enough capacity in her department to monitor safety compliance. However, stricter safety laws passed by parliament last year which threaten jail time, as well as heavy fines for mine bosses, have caused concern among South African mining companies.

Herholdt said that best practice is good, but it should be used appropriately. He also said that Deloitte identified the issue of mine safety as a business imperative, something which absolutely had to be addressed in order for mines to operate successfully in the future.