Compared to coal resources in most other countries, South Africa's coal deposits are relatively shallow with thick seams rendering them amenable to fairly shallow underground and opencast mining operations..
While South African mining in general is still a largely labour-intensive process, the coal mining industry is technologically advanced and less labour intensive. 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.
Over the years 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.
South Africa's Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) provides for an inclusive, tri-partite approach to safety and health, requiring industry, unions and government to act in concert in promoting safety and health in the workplace. This approach can be directly linked to an overall improvement in safety and health performance.
The Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate of the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), established in terms of the MHSA, is responsible for the overall regulation of safeguarding the health and safety of mine employees, as well as residents of areas affected by mining operations. The Chief Inspector of Mines has extensive authority, and may impose directives to prohibit certain work in certain areas, and/or activities. These stoppages may be extended to entire mines, should the inspectorate have valid reason for such a decision.
As required by the MHSA, individual companies and mines have agreements in place that regulate aspects of safety and health in the workplace, and that make provision for joint planning, decision-making, training and auditing as far as health and safety matters are concerned. Typically, each shaft has its own health and safety committee that comprises representatives from management and unions. These committees seek to ensure compliance with regulations, provide safety training for all employees, and promote active collaboration in all matters relating to safety and health. They provide a forum for the investigation of accidents and incidents and the findings are documented and shared. Collaboration on matters of health and safety in the mining industry is both extensive and intensive.
The Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) was set up in 1996 to direct safety in the mining industry and to respond to industry safety challenges. This body was built on the achievements of decades of fundamental research and funded by the mining industry. The MHSC comprises a tripartite board represented by the state, employers and organised labour, under the chairmanship of the Chief Inspector of Mines. The MHSC is funded by public revenue and is accountable to Parliament.
The MHSC's primary tasks are to advise the Minister of Mineral Resources on occupational health and safety legislation and research outcomes focused on improving and promoting occupational health and safety in South African mines.
The MHSC works closely with the Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA), which plays a critical role in addressing skills shortages in the mining industry through capacity development and process improvement. The MQA is mandated to ensure that the mining and minerals sector has sufficient numbers of competent people who have been trained to improve health and safety standards and processes.
Coal mining members of the Minerals Council South Africa participate in the Mining Industry Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) Learning Hub. Established in 2009, the Learning Hub encourages mining companies to learn from pockets of excellence within the industry through an adoption process which involves identifying, documenting, demonstrating and facilitating widespread adoption of leading practices that have the greatest potential to address the major risks in health and safety areas such as falls of ground, transport and machinery, dust and noise. See www.mosh.co.za
Safety risks differ from company to company, and indeed, from operation to operation.
The most significant safety challenges relate to:
Mining activities impose abnormal stress on the surrounding rock. The term 'fall of ground' is used to classify those 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.
Methane gas is frequently present in the coal seam and surrounding rock, and presents a risk of uncontrolled ignition. Dust particulates add to the risk of explosion. Techniques have been developed to monitor and manage the presence of methane. For example, large fans with carefully planned ventilation flows can adequately dilute the flow 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. Methane levels are monitored continuously underground using detection monitors (methanometers). Methanometers are able to detect tiny parts per million of methane, and immediately transmit methane concentration readings, providing warnings to mineworkers and management to take the necessary actions.
South African coal mines continue to be among the safest mines in the world.
Over the past two decades, the coal mining industry has demonstrated a continued improvement in its safety performance. The number of fatalities in the South African coal industry decreased by 89% since 1993, while the number of serious injuries decreased by 31% over the same time period.
Regrettably, in 2017 the South African coal industry saw a regression in terms of safety performance, with 10 fatalities reported.
In 2018, however, the numbers improved slightly, indicating a 10% improvement from 2017.
Source: Department of Mineral Resources
The number of serious injuries reported by the coal industry also decreased to 167 injuries during 2018, compared to 193 in 2017, which is an improvement of 17%%.
Source: Department of Mineral Resources/Minerals Council South Africa
In terms of fatality frequency rates, the coal industry compares favourably with international benchmarks. In 2015, the South African coal sector performed better than the US coal sector.
Source: Department of Mineral Resources/Minerals Council South Africa
Following the disaster at Coalbrook Colliery in 1960, where rescuers were unable to reach working areas, the coal mining members of the Minerals Council South Africa (then the Chamber of Mines) acquired a Wirth L10 drill and ancillary equipment worth R600,000 to assist with rescue operations at South African underground collieries. The Chamber consulted drilling experts to identify the best available equipment at the time.
In 2014, South African coal mining houses funded the purchase of new rescue drilling equipment worth R66 million. The Schramm T130XD drill and the Schramm T685WS drill with ancillary equipment were selected for their stringent safety standards and ease of transportation. The selection task team comprised the Minerals Council South Africa, Mines Rescue Services and the Colliery Training College.
While the drill has not been used in a coal mining accident, it has been used on a number of occasions, with the blessing of the coal mining industry, most recently in trying to reach survivors at Lily Mine.
The Coalbrook Colliery disaster in 1960 was one of the worst mining accidents to have occurred in South Africa. A total of 435 men died when a large section of a wall caved in. Investigations led by local and international experts revealed that the failure of one support pillar set off a disastrous progressive and unstoppable collapse of 900 other pillars that were designed to support the mine's working areas.
As a direct result of this incident, in 1963, the then Chamber of Mines established the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation (COMRO), which together with the Coal Mines Research Controlling Council, made great strides in safety and research about pillar support in mines. Their findings revolutionised safety in mining, not just in coal mining, but more especially in South Africa's deep-level gold mines. In 1990, COMRO and its research programmes were taken over by the CSIR when it set up its Mining Innovation division.
An explosion in 1993 at Sasol’s Middelbult Colliery resulted in the death of 53 workers. An inquest into the explosion found that coal dust was the primary fuel for an underground mine explosion. The Leon Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry, appointed on 28 May 1993 and which led the way to the new Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) as well as the Mining Regulation Advisory Committee (MRAC), identified explosions caused by coal dust as one of the key areas of concern in mine safety and health. The MRAC appointed a tripartite task team to advise on measures to be taken in mitigating the risk of coal mine ignitions. The task team found inadequacies in the regulatory requirements relating to the prevention of coal dust explosions. The task team was consequently further tasked with compiling guidelines for an appropriate code of practice.
Following the Kinross mine disaster in 1986, the mining industry introduced mandatory life sustaining refuge chambers and self-contained self-rescuers.
Through technological advancements such as these, safety standards in coal mines have become more rigorous. Coal mining has adapted leading support technologies over the years to mitigate falls of ground fatalities and injuries by enhancing pillar support infrastructure. 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 remain active during power outages, fan stoppages or gas accumulations. It is imperative that workers are able to communicate with each other at all times especially during life-threatening situations.