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By Ciaran Ryan

Moneyweb: Journalist & Host of Moneyweb Crypto Podcast

60% of recalled miners have returned to work

But mining in the era of social distancing poses unique challenges.

Some 60% of recalled miners have returned to work in preparation for the lifting of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The mining sector is among the first to be partially reopened after the government-imposed lockdown began in March.

Coal mines supplying Eskom were allowed to continue operating during the lockdown, but the new regulations allow coal and open cast mines to operate at 100% production capacity, and underground mines at 50%.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, the Minerals Council SA and several mining groups outlined the steps being taken to ensure the health of workers in the post-lockdown workplace:

  • Thermal scanners at access control points to detect unusually high body temperatures;
  • Quarantine facilities for the sick;
  • Social distancing;
  • Masks and protective gear for miners gathering in close quarters; and
  • Most mines have deployed cellphone tracking apps to see where miners have been and who they had contact with.

This is the new world of mining until further notice.

So far, just nine miners have tested positive for the virus, and most of these had contact with people who had arrived from abroad or had themselves travelled across provincial borders.

Industry-specific challenges

Getting workers back to the mines has had its own unique challenges: taxi associations are reported to have been stopping buses transporting miners and impounding vehicles, complaining that mines were interfering in their transport business.

Miners were sent essential services permits via their cellphones, which in some instances were not accepted by police who wanted to see hard copies. That appears to have been resolved after intervention by the Minerals Council.

A further complicating factor is a court challenge being brought by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Amcu wants Covid-19 declared a health hazard in terms of the Mine Health and Safety Act.

It also wants the industry response standardised in terms of regulations rather than left to each mine to come up with its own plans.

The Minerals Council says this is a legally incorrect application of the act’s health provisions, although it is not opposed to all of Amcu’s claims. The case is due to be heard this week.

Tebello Chabana, public affairs spokesperson at the Minerals Council, says early estimates indicate that the industry is currently operating at about 30% capacity, and that it could take more than a month for underground mines to reach 50% capacity.

10-point plan

Addressing concerns over the preparedness of the industry for a partial return to work, the Minerals Council said it has developed a 10-point action plan covering:

  • Employee education
  • Health worker readiness
  • Use of masks, sanitisers and temperature monitors
  • Proactive influenza vaccinations
  • Dealing with immunocompromised employees
  • Management of suspected cases or contacts of cases
  • Isolation of employees where required
  • Travel advice
  • Industry reporting, and
  • Communication and monitoring.

At the press briefing on Tuesday, mining groups outlined steps being taken to tackle the virus in a coordinated manner with government health authorities, municipalities and local communities.

Gold Fields is issuing workers with a ‘Coronavirus passport’ for travelling to and from work, and to remind them of the do’s and don’ts of Covid-19 social behaviour.

Sven Lunsche, vice-president for corporate affairs at Gold Fields, says the new normal means workers are considered employees 24 hours a day, because what they do outside of work hours can impact what happens in the workplace.

AngloGold Ashanti vice-president of health Dr Bafedile Chauke says the group has strengthened the health care systems in countries where it operates, and has launched mass Covid-19 educational campaigns both nationally and in surrounding communities.

In SA, it has made two hospitals available to government in North West province and Gauteng as isolation and treatment facilities, and – together with Sasol and Imperial – is supplying 1 000 litre bulk sanitisers to four major hospitals in Gauteng.

Anglo American spokesperson Nomonde Ndwalaza says the group’s Covid-19 campaigns are focused on critical areas such as water, energy, food supply and making sure banking and cash is available to those in need.

It is providing support to 160 clinics, and ensuring that water tankers are getting to municipalities and villages in areas where it operates. The group donated $2 million support to the Solidarity Fund, aimed at supporting small businesses, and is distributing 66 000 food parcels in communities in SA, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Sibanye-Stillwater head of investor relations James Wellsted says executives have taken a 30% cut in salaries, with more than R20 million being donated to the Solidarity Fund and the SA Future Trust Fund.

The group paid out R1.5 billion in wages during lockdown, and is now gearing up for the return to 50% production capacity.

Exxaro head of stakeholder affairs Mzila Mthenjane says the group had been allowed to continue operating during lockdown as it is considered an essential supplier of coal to Eskom. It had a jump start on other mining groups in its Covid-19 preparedness, conducting self-screening of workers, with suspected cases of infection being reported to medical practitioners for quarantining.

Thermal scanners are used at all business unit access control points, and those registering body temperatures above 38 degrees are sent home and referred to medical practitioner.

Harmony head of corporate affairs Harry Mashego says the group kept tabs on the geographic location of employees as they departed the mine during lockdown.

Joint operation centres with health authorities, police and transport officials have been created to coordinate the return to work. It is left to the human resources department to determine which of the 50% of workers will be allowed to return to work.

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