The weekend incident comes in the wake of a mine safety conference last week and mounting concerns about the rising death toll in South Africa’s shafts. Implats had been notching historic safety records over the past year.
“Available information is that seven employees were working at the bottom of the shaft when the area became inundated as a result of a mud rush. Two employees safely exited the area with minor injuries and are receiving counselling and support. As at 18:00, five employees remain unaccounted for. Two search and rescue teams are currently working underground in an effort to locate the missing employees,” Implats said in a statement late on Sunday.
“Contact is being made with the families of the missing employees in order to provide updates on the search and rescue mission, as well as counselling and support. This regrettably follows a separate incident at the 16 Shaft mining complex on 27 November 2021 in which a contract employee was fatally injured during underground drilling operations,” the company said.
If four or more miners are killed in a single incident it is considered to be a “disaster”.
South Africa’s record on mine safety has come under renewed scrutiny. This year’s death toll has raced ahead of 2020’s, the latest setback after years of vast improvement on this front.
The Minerals Council South Africa said last month that as of 28 October, the number of fatalities in the country’s mines stood at 55 compared with 43 at the same time last year. Last week, Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told the Mine Safe conference that the 2021 death toll then stood at 58 without providing a comparative figure for last year. If the five missing miners have not survived their ordeal, then the 2021 number will be well above 60 so far.
In 2019, there was a record low of 51 fatalities in South Africa’s mining sector, so the 2021 total has already surpassed that — and this is the second consecutive year in which fatalities have risen.
The latest incident involving a mud rush is simply a horrific event.
“Mud rushes are sudden inflows of mud from draw points or other underground openings. Mud rushes can and have posed a major hazard to safety in underground mining,” is the description given in a 2005 paper in the Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM).
It is like a tsunami of mud barreling through the shafts.
“The rapidity of the mud inflow is such that escape of personnel in its path is most unlikely, with terrible consequences for safety. Mud rushes are also directly responsible for severe damage to infrastructure. Considerable violence, in the form of an air blast, is often associated with a mud rush. Such an air blast event can also be the cause of accidents and severe damage to mine infrastructure,” the SAIMM journal article said.
All operations at Implats’ Rustenburg’s 6 and 16 Shaft complexes “have been suspended until a full and comprehensive report is available,” the company said.