Placing the spotlight on the occupational health and safety needs of informal miners in South Africa

While the South African mining industry has consistently reduced fatalities since 2007, mine health and safety remains a great cause for concern. The situation is even worse in informal and artisanal mining operations as fatalities and injuries most often  do not get reported to the national Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).

Informal mining is an “invisible” world in the midst of a plethora of occupational health and safety (OHS) policies in South Africa. There is no targeted policy framework for the OHS needs of informal artisanal miners. It is a cause for concern that there are worker fatalities and injuries that do not get reported to the DMR.

For many decades, the visibility of the needs of artisanal and small-scale miners has been overshadowed by attention to medium-sized and larger mining companies. The OHS legislation tends to favour the needs of these bigger  companies above those of the artisanal and small-scale mining companies, let alone the miners who engage in informal mining activities as a livelihood strategy.

Dr Sizwe Phakathi participated in the 2014 Emerging Leaders in African Mining (ELAM) Program, delivered by the Australian Government-funded Australia Africa Partnerships Facility. Dr Phakathi also received an Australia Awards Small Grant in 2015 to the value of AUD10,000 to conduct research on the safety practices, risks and challenges of informal artisanal miners. The research project was conducted in an open-cast mine with informal artisanal coal and clay miners in the community of Blaauwbowsch, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. “The main objective of the research project was to illuminate the voice of informal artisanal miners as participants who can shape intervention programs rather than passive recipients and beneficiaries who need decisions to be made on their behalf on what their OHS needs are and in what form such needs should be delivered to them,” explains Dr Phakathi.

To develop his research strategy, Dr Phakathi drew on skills and knowledge gained during his ELAM training in Australia through the Minerals and Energy for Development Alliance (MEfDA) at the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland. “The skills and knowledge relating to the sustainable development of the extractives sector, for the benefit of local mining communities, have helped me a great deal in identifying the research and policy-making gaps that the project sought to address through the narrative accounts of informal artisanal miners of their safety practices, as well as the risks and challenges they faced as they made a living in an open-cast mine.”

The research project was also an opportunity for Dr Phakathi to work with and mentor graduates in the field, while they gained valuable practical experience in research design and implementation. “I worked closely with Pfumelani Siweya from the University of Johannesburg on the comprehensive review of literature for the study, whereas Musa Malabela, a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Tony Nyundu, who finished his Masters degree during the course of the research, were intimately involved with the fieldwork conducted in the informal open-cast mine.”

Over 170 informal coal and clay miners who work in the open-cast mines and local community of Blaauwbosch on a daily basis were part of the research. The research collection phase gave the informal miners an opportunity to present their views in terms of the safety challenges they faced and how these challenges impacted negatively on their informal mining activities. Key issues raised were the use of unsafe, traditional equipment to mine coal, unhealthy working conditions, including a lack of sanitation on site, exposure to disease, lack of safety training and insufficient protective personal equipment or clothing. Interviews with the miners also revealed a clear lack of knowledge of safety standards, the safety risks they face and the implications for their health and environmental degradation.

Vulnerable groups, including women and the elderly, presented their views on their occupational health and safety needs and the sustainable development challenges of the mining activities. The research discovered that the involvement of women in Blaauwbosch’s informal and artisanal mining activities was as strong as that of the male miners. The focus group discussions conducted in the open-cast mine provided a space for women to highlight differences in the impact that the challenges of informal mining have on their lives through the livelihood activity of mining coal and making bricks from the clay that is mined. The involvement of the elderly in informal artisanal mining showed the burden of poverty and unemployment on pensioners who found themselves compelled to supplement their monthly government grant by engaging in a physically demanding mining activity in order to provide for their children and grandchildren.

Despite the operational challenges they faced, the research showed that the informal artisanal miners of Blaauwbosch were very much attached to the mine as it is a significant source of livelihood. The miners indicated that they would not support the closure of the mine, but would support the development of the mine for their benefit and for the benefit of the community as a whole. “The findings of this research highlight the potential that the artisanal and small-scale mining sector has in addressing the development challenges of poverty and unemployment, and to make a call for the sustainable development of this sector and the empowerment of informal artisanal and small-scale miners. Artisanal and small-scale mining businesses will thrive when the miners are capacitated and empowered with OHS training, compliance with OHS legislation and standards, business management skills, financial skills, access to credit, access to finance and improvement of working conditions that comply with and promote the Decent Work Agenda of the International Labour Organisation (ILO),” says Dr Phakathi.

The next steps of this initiative will focus on disseminating the findings and recommendations of the research project at various forums with multiple stakeholders, interested parties and organisations. Specifically, Dr Phakathi is looking at creating OHS tools for informal miners. “I am seeking further funding to develop OHS training manuals or toolkits for the informal artisanal miners of Blaauwbosch. Lives would be saved as the safety performance will increase in terms of the number of fatalities incurred and injuries sustained by artisanal and small-scale miners. A sustainable artisanal and small-scale mining sector will be developed to make a significant contribution to local economic development and the national economy.”

Call to action: Apart from its challenges, artisanal and small-scale mining plays a significant role as a livelihood strategy for miners and local communities. It is for this reason that artisanal and small-scale mining ought to be supported and developed, given its significant contribution to poverty alleviation, job creation and revenue generation for national economies.

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