Sub-Sahara Mining & Industrial Journal
Health and Safety

Morale high as Covid-masked South African miners get back to work

Morale is reportedly high as Covid-masked and physically distanced South African mineworkers get back to mining underground for companies that have gone the extra mile to ensure that they have been fully remunerated and host communities generously funded during the national lockdown.

In a two-hour-plus Minerals Council South Africa online media briefing on Tuesday, council member companies graphically illustrated the elaborate measures they have taken and remarkable outreaches they have made to keep the spread of the coronavirus at bay, to transport mineworkers back to the rockface from distant labour-sourcing areas and to equip them with an abundance of personal protective equipment (PPE).ADVERTISEMENT

Mining companies paid out many billions of rands during the stay-at-home lockdown, paying salaries in full, along with pension, medical aid and even housing allowances, where applicable.

“Employees feel that companies are standing alongside and behind them in ensuring that the industry is sustained. As we see more employees coming back to work, I think there’s a huge level of gratitude that they are coming back to a place of employment.

“The level of morale has been surprisingly high, but I think it hasn’t been without any effort on the part of employers and leaders to continue to communicate and I think more importantly, seeing how companies are going beyond just the leasing area in terms of looking after employees, but also looking after the communities where these employees come from.

“So, it’s a combination of factors that is really encouraging employees to want to come back because I think they are really witnessing that companies are not only looking at profits, but also the health and welfare of employees and their families,” Mthenjane added.

Workers have shown an alacrity in getting back down to it with no qualms at all about the layers of protective gear.

“There’s been no resistance whatsoever to the additional health and safety requirements. While we’ve all paid base pay to mineworkers, while they are back at work they are also entitled to bonus pay, depending on productivity levels, which is obviously an incentive for many of them to come back, because their bonus pay can be very substantial in some cases,” Gold Fields VP corporate affairs Sven Lunsche said.

“We’re aware of substantial numbers of employees who were not recalled, somehow finding a way back to the mines and presented themselves for work,” Minerals Council employment relations head Motsamai Motlhamme said.

“We already had quite stringent health and safety requirements. Our people wear masks any way, they wear glove and eye protection so it’s not totally new and they all understand that it’s for their own protection,” said Sibanye-Stillwater senior VP investor relations James Wellsted.

Sibanye-Stillwater’s overall Covid-19 donations have totalled R78-million and on top of that R1.5-billion in wages was paid to workers during the lockdown.

“We continue to make wage contributions to our employees, through the lockdown period. Remember, this wasn’t a legal obligation. The no-work-no-pay still applies, but many of the mining companies have taken that onus onto themselves to continue paying employees and assisting employees during this time,” Wellsted noted.

“We’re very pleased that this phased build-up in production is taking place because that will allow us to cover those costs to a large extent. Throughout the organisation, we’ve got a volunteerism scheme where employees can donate and the company will directly match up to R1-million of employee donations and contribute a similar sum,” he said.

Those contributions totalled R24.8-million in contributions. On top of that is the significantly larger wages contribution and that has a major impact owing to the multiplier effect throughout the local economies.

Sibanye-Stillwater’s local small business fund is contributing R14.5-million to stimulate local economic growth in local communities. The company has incentivised local suppliers making PPE by contributing R1-million so far, which may grow over time.

It has located 20 large water tanks in local communities that do not have access to water and will continue to donate food parcels beyond the current figure of 8 000. Six hundred blankets and mattresses have been donated to homeless shelters.

The partial resumption of mining activities since the amendment of the 16 April Disaster Management Act regulations will be reinforced by the switch on May 1 to the Level 4 alert status announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on April 23.

The Minerals Council continues to applaud government’s approach to the Covid-19 crisis, which it describes as “well-considered and decisive”.

At the same time, it has noted concerns from some parties regarding the care that mining companies have taken, and will take, as production is phased up in the sector.

“The industry is extremely conscious of the responsibilities it faces in these unprecedented circumstances. No doubt, as the economy more broadly begins its own opening up process with the switch to Level 4, employers in many sectors face similar responsibilities,” the council said in a media release.

In close cooperation with member companies’ occupational health experts and others, and in engagements through the Mine Health and Safety Council with experts from government and organised labour, it has been monitoring the situation closely since January and taking a range of actions.

The council’s work has been conducted through its health policy committee and based on information from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and through the use of materials provided by the World Health Organisation.

Based on these engagements, the council began from early February providing members with material on mitigation measures against the virus.

By early March, two weeks before the declaration of the state of disaster and before the first diagnosis in South Africa, member companies were operating in terms of a Minerals Council 10-point action plan.

This involved, in brief, employee education, health worker readiness, use of masks, sanitisers and temperature monitors, proactive influenza vaccinations, dealing with immuno-compromised employees, management of suspected cases or contacts of cases, provision for isolation of employees where required, travel advice, industry reporting, communication and monitoring.

With the March 27 lockdown and the restrictions on mining to essential mining, such as coal supplies to Eskom, and care and maintenance, a standard operating procedure (SOP) was developed both for the limited work continuing, and for an eventual return to work.

From the earliest days of the lockdown, Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) inspections have been taking place at mine and processing plants with the full cooperation of the mining companies. The SOP itself has been updated at times as knowledge of the virus has advanced, and this will continue based on advice from all relevant experts.

The SOP deals with procedures to be followed before the return of employees; infection prevention, screening and referrals after their return; isolation areas; practices such as employee training, PPE use, hygiene precautions and physical distancing; and, finally, reporting.

It should be clear that, while the prime responsibility for ensuring the effective implementation of all these measures, and any others that may be prescribed by law, rests with management, effective implementation rests with all involved, including employees themselves, their elected representatives and the regulator.

Council members are conscious that people are employees for only a part of their time, and they are also individuals with families and friends. This is what lies behind companies, in addition to doing their utmost to ensure health and safety in the workplace, also having made significant contributions to salaries of those who have been unable to work, made donations to the Business for South Africa Solidarity Fund and other funds, and carried out additional community projects.

The April amendments to the Disaster Management Act regulations permitted operation up to 50% capacity and introduced workplace regulations through that medium. The shift to Level 4 will see further developments in this regard.

The council is not in any way averse to the regulation of workplaces in terms of Covid-19 directives and regulations by the DMRE inspectorate, as is the case in respect of other health and safety matters.

The Minerals Council would gladly allow the SOP and any other relevant material based on expert opinion to be made part of the regulatory framework. 

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