Mining industry shows SA how to prevent Covid-19

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Mining industry shows SA how to prevent Covid-19

TB and HIV safety protocols, along with ‘meticulous’ planning are keeping the disease under control in mines

Journalist
Impala Platinum's Marula Mine in Limpopo.
Suspended Impala Platinum's Marula Mine in Limpopo.
Image: Courtesy of Impala Platinum

A cluster of Covid-19 cases detected among returning workers at Impala Platinum’s Morula Mine in Limpopo has doubled the number of positive cases overnight – and shown how crippling regional cross-contamination can be.

The platinum mine confirmed on Saturday that 19 workers had tested positive following screening. Two miners had returned from the Eastern Cape.

Of the cases, 14 were identified as the result of proactive testing of employees who were due to return to work as the mine prepared to restart operations.

The remaining five cases were linked to one person and four others identified through contact tracing. 

None of the workers were showing any symptoms when the mine started its screening process, said Impala spokesperson Johan Theron.

“We had identified some high-risk people [and] there was a surprising number of positive asymptomatic cases,” he said.

The mine employs 4,500 people, about one-tenth of Impala’s total workforce.

Marula is the first mine to identify itself with Covid-19 cases among its workforce.

After four of the mine’s health workers tested positive the medical clinic was closed.

Marula has suspended operations while further testing takes place.

Impala said it was “significant” that 17 of the 19 people lived in the nearby town of Burgersfort. The other two cases had returned from their homes in the Eastern Cape ahead of the mine restarting operations at 50% capacity.

Meanwhile, a thorough disinfecting and sanitising process was under way at Marula Mine. Support and medical personnel had been deployed from the company’s vast Rustenburg operation.

Theron said the 19 employees who tested positive would be tested again to check for false positives.

The shutdown is costing Marula about R15m a week in lost revenue, but there was no timeline for when it would reopen.

“Operating at these levels is not profit-driven,” said Theron.

“Nobody’s going to make money at 50% [of production], or even 60, 70%. It allows us to get people back, to test and screen them. They get paid, they can look after their families, we can get some of the business around these towns going again, and we can get through this as a country.”

We had identified some high-risk people and there was a surprising number of positive asymptomatic cases.
Impala spokesperson Johan Theron

Until now, most Covid-19 cases reported by the mining industry have been among people at corporate offices or employees who had travelled internationally and locally for work or studies and who had had no operational contact before testing positive, said Minerals Council spokesperson Charmane Russell. 

“What we are starting to see now is an increase in detection of cases as a result of on-mine screening reflecting the growing number of cases in the population,” she said.

According to the Minerals Council tracker, the mining industry had 41 confirmed cases of Covid-19 on April 19, of which 23 were in Limpopo.

Gauteng trailed Limpopo with eight confirmed cases followed by North West with seven.

Mpumalanga reported two Covid-19 cases in mines and there was one confirmed case in the Western Cape.

That the industry has managed to keep transmission low is largely thanks to proven safety protocols developed over the years to deal with chronic HIV and TB health issues on mines.

“The planning has been meticulous,” said Russell.

The main areas of concern were the conveyances, such as the lifts that carry miners to and from the surface and the transport to work areas.

While occupancy in the lifts had been reduced to 30%, it was still difficult to maintain the recommended 1.5m social distance.

“When individuals cannot socially distance themselves, they wear full PPE of goggles, face shields, boots and gloves,” she said.

All conveyances were also disinfected before and after every use.

Any people present at underground meetings were also required to wear full PPE while workers such as rock drillers had long worn PPE such as masks to combat silicosis.

Screening is now one of the industry’s key weapons in the fightback against the coronavirus. Using a cellphone app, employees can now self-screen by answering a series of questions before their shifts begin, after which a permit is sent to them on their phones.

When individuals cannot socially distance themselves, they wear full PPE of goggles, face shields and gloves.
Minerals Council spokesperson Charmane Russell

Their temperatures are taken on arrival at the mine.

The app’s effectiveness depended on honesty and responsibility, issues for which the industry had invested in training, said Russell.

South Deep Gold Mine has released a video covering its protocols to keep workers safe. The video teaches miners the correct use of PPE and how to maintain social distancing, and shows other safety measures such as a walk-through sanitiser developed by the mine, how all keys are disinfected before shifts, and how the floors of the lifts have been marked to ensure social distancing.

As a result of restrictions being eased on mining in April, the industry was already ahead of the curve as it ramped up production to 50%, said Sibanye-Stillwater spokesperson James Wellsted.  

“I’m not sure that level 3 is going to make much difference. Maybe travel will be easier for employees.”

Wellsted said the impact of the pandemic on how the company would operate in future would be minimal. The main issue would be managing the disease for the long term, which could mean different shift cycles and working remotely by those employees who can.

But mining, especially in the deep-level gold mines, would remain a labour-intensive business.