THE BOTTOM LINE
Miners faced with a deadly choice about mechanisation
Inherently dangerous jobs can only be made safer through technology – but unions don’t want it
A recently retired mining chief executive spoke of the release from the terrible burden of the dreaded call about an accident at one of the company’s mines. Anyone who believes the management of mining companies don’t take fatal accidents or serious incidents to heart needs to revisit those views.
But the fact remains South Africa’s mines are deadly despite decades of work to improve the safety underground and in open pit operations. The work done is self-evident. From an average of 550 deaths a year between 1984 and 2005 according to statistics from the Department of Mineral Resources, the number of fatalities fell to 88 in 2017.Changing human behaviour has been at the core of the improvement as have better mining methods and support of tunnels, making the working environment safer. Companies spend millions on steel netting, roof bolting and equipment to make an inherently dangerous job safer, but those efforts seem to have now plateaued and another step change is needed to reduce fatalities even further.
The most obvious answer is technology and mechanised mining. Mining companies and their equipment suppliers are already working hard to find the holy grail of continuous autonomous mining that uses as few people as possible as far away from danger areas as is feasible.
The problem is this work is decried by unions who fear falling employment opportunities in the mining industry which has traditionally been a source for jobs, particularly for those with limited education.
Whatever the opposition is from organised labour, mining companies will have to push ahead with technological advances in mining or completely lose their social licence to mine.