Safety and health
South Africa's coal deposits are relatively shallow with thick seams compared to coal deposits in other countries, making it suitable for fairly shallow underground and opencast mining operations.
The South African coal mining industry is technologically advanced and less labour intensive than other sectors of the mining industry. Central to the coal mining industry's approach to improving safety is the removal of miners from working-face dangers and potential health hazards.
The industry is guided by extensive health and safety legislation and regulations. Government monitors and enforces compliance to health and safety measures at mines and audits and inspections are conducted to ensure compliance.
Rigorous safety procedures, health and safety standards and employee education and training programmes have resulted in significant improvements in safety performance in both underground and opencast coal mining.
The most significant safety issues are:
Falls of ground
Mining activities impose abnormal stress on the surrounding rock. The term 'fall of ground' describes accidents that relate to unexpected movement of the rock mass and the uncontrolled release of debris and rock, as a result of gravity and/or pressure and strain burst.
Improvements in rock engineering techniques, seismic monitoring and improved roof support using bolting and netting have minimised risk and significantly reduced the incidence of falls of ground in working areas.
Explosions as a result of methane or particulates
Methane gas is inherently present in the coal seam and surrounding rock, and presents a risk of uncontrolled ignition. The presence of dust particulates add to the risk of explosion. Techniques have been developed to monitor and manage the presence of methane. For example, large fans ensure dilution of methane, while dust prevention measures limit the levels of coal dust particulates in the air. In extreme situations, methane inhalation may result in asphyxiation. Underground methane levels are monitored continuously using methanometers which detect tiny parts per million of methane, and immediately transmit methane concentration readings, providing warnings to mineworkers and management to take the necessary action.
South African coal mines continue to be among the safest mines in the world. The number of fatalities in the South African coal industry decreased by 89% from 1933 to 2016, while the number of serious injuries decreased by 31% over the same time period. Regrettably, in 2017, the industry saw a regression in terms of safety performance, with 10 fatalities reported. Since 2017, the mining industry as a whole has redoubled its efforts to achieve its goal of zero harm.
Safety and technology
Following the Kinross gold mine disaster in 1986, the mining industry introduced mandatory life sustaining refuge chambers and self-contained self-rescuers.
Through technological advancements such as these, coal mining has seen an increase in safety standards for employees. Improved pillar and roof support infrastructure has mitigated against falls of ground fatalities and injuries. Mine planners are able to efficiently map mines, monitor coal seams, and locate potential problems before they pose a danger to mine workers.
There have been vast improvements in communication devices that are able to stay active during power outages, fan stoppages or gas accumulations. It is vital that workers are able to communicate with each other at all times especially during life-threatening situations.
The South African coal mining industry is concerned about the overall health and well-being of employees, in and outside the workplace. The industry provides access to health care and promotes healthy living.
Occupational health programmes help prevent and mitigate occupational health risks. Exposure to health risks is analysed, monitored and managed, and preventative measures are taken. Employee communication about risk and prevention is vital. Rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes are also provided.
The industry promotes a healthy workforce through health and wellness programmes. Wellness programmes aim to reduce health risks, provide access to health care, and educate, inform and empower employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Focus is on reducing lifestyle diseases (such as hypertension, diabetes and cholesterol levels), managing the risks of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, and effectively managing mental health conditions.
Occupational health issues
The primary occupational health concerns associated with coal mining in South Africa are dust-induced occupational lung diseases and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
Dust-induced occupational lung diseases
Dust exposure in coal mines is a risk factor for occupational lung diseases such as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung; chronic obstructive airways disease; and lung function deficiency.
Employee exposure varies considerably as some employees are continuously exposed while others are exposed for short periods of time. Measuring is key to understanding exposure and to designing effective dust control. Dust sampling in the South African coal industry has been a legal requirement for several decades. Daily dust-suppression inspections take place at operations and reports are made to the DMR on dust levels.
Dust suppression systems are critical to preventing the exposure of employees to unacceptable levels of dust. Coal mining companies have been using dust-suppression since the 1960s and have been at the forefront of developing new dust-suppression equipment and techniques in South Africa. Equipment such as continuous miners are remotely-controlled and contain dust-suppression technology, such as high-pressure water-spray systems and scrubbers.
Coal mining employees are equipped with personal protection equipment (PPE).
Operations are continuously ventilated, which contributes to a healthier working environment as large quantities of clean air enter the mine areas underground and dilute the dust concentration.
At an occupational health and safety summit in November 2016, mining industry stakeholders agreed that, by December 2024, 95% of all exposure measurement results of coal dust respirable particulate must be below the level of 1.5mg/m3 (<5% silica).
Noise induced hearing loss
NIHL has been recognised as a major occupational health risk in the South African coal mining industry. Prolonged exposure to hazardous noise more than 85dBA causes loss of hearing, which occurs gradually.
Throughout the industry, emphasis is placed on noise suppression (that is silencing at the source) and hearing conservation. An important part of hearing conservation is noise monitoring to prevent exposure, provision of PPE, and regular hearing tests.
Occupational health and safety targets were set by the Mine Health and Safety Council in 2014 with the aim of eliminating NIHL.
Public health issues
Public health issues affect the health and wellbeing of our employees outside of the workplace but also have the potential to impact safety and health in the workplace.
Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB)
TB has a high social and economic cost, both for the individuals concerned and for the whole industry. It is a serious infection and is the leading cause of death for people living with HIV.
The coal mining industry's wellness programmes educate employees about TB and provide support for the management of the disease.
The prevention, management and treatment of HIV/AIDS plays a critical role in the well-being of employees and communities – and is also key to sound economic and social development. The South African coal mining industry works together with government to address this issue.
Industry initiatives include HIV wellness programmes which educate employees about HIV/AIDS and its prevention; testing and counselling; and treatment programmes. The coal mining industry was in the forefront of rolling out antiretroviral therapy (ART) to employees.
Fatigue and substance abuse management
Employee fatigue is a critical safety issue affecting many mines in South Africa. Many accidents point to fatigue as the cause or a contributing factor. Fatigue develops for many reasons including physically demanding work activities and an unhealthy lifestyle, which may include the abuse of alcohol and drugs. The industry has a zero tolerance approach to drug abuse in the interests of all employees' safety.
The industry incorporates fatigue and substance abuse management into its mine safety management systems. Wellness programmes address the subjects of work fatigue and alcohol and drug abuse and emphasise the need for a healthy lifestyle.