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Last week’s drama at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Beatrix mine in the Free State has resulted in unions and government calling for an inquiry and an overhaul of safety measures at Sibanye Gold's operations. Close to 1000 mineworkers were trapped underground for almost three days following a power outage.

Mine safety measuresA severe storm caused the collapse of the primary and secondary Eskom power lines supplying electricity to the Beatrix operations. This caused a power surge and outage at all three shafts at the mine, trapping the majority of the night shift underground. A back-up generator allowed 64 employees to get to the surface at Beatrix 1 shaft and 272 employees at Beatrix 4 shaft, but damage to the winder control systems and generators at the Beatrix 3 shaft resulted in 955 employees remaining underground.

The installation of temporary power line pylons, conducted by mine management and Eskom, allowed power to be restored and all employees to be safely hoisted to surface. “Sibanye-Stillwater is pleased to advise that all underground employees at its Beatrix operations in the Free State‚ have safely returned to the surface‚” the company announced in a statement.

“Employees will undergo medical examination and trauma counselling‚ together with their families‚ if required. Mine rescue and medical teams were mobilised and due care was taken to ensure employees were safe and had access to food and water. Detailed contingency plans were made (by) mine rescue teams to evacuate employees through the second outlet at Beatrix 1 shaft‚ in the event that power was not restored.”

Despite this statement, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources have all condemned Sibanye Gold. Amcu's Joseph Mathunjwa said that the company's safety plans are far from adequate. “They don't invest in safety measures to prevent such situations. The generators are more expensive than the lives of the mineworkers.”

NUM’s spokesperson, Livhuwani Mammburu, said: “The NUM is extremely worried about health and safety measures in all mining companies in South Africa.” The Parliamentary Committee has asked the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) to explain why its safety inspectors failed to detect that the Beatrix mine did not have a reliable backup power system.

Labour analyst Mamokgethi Molopyane points out that the DMR’s health and safety division must be under the spotlight moment. “Questions must be posed to them to say, how have you been following up on mining companies – and not just Sibanye? Over the past five years we’ve had a series of accidents, some with fatalities, some not, in various mines. And it speaks to a lowering of standards, or it speaks to a neglect on the part of companies or a neglect on the part of the inspectors who are supposed to go to mine sites and check that things are order,” he says.

Image credit: Copyright: buranatrakul / 123RF Stock Photo

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