Health is a priority for the South African coal mining industry. The South Africa coal mining industry is concerned about the overall health and well-being of employees, both in and outside the workplace. This holistic approach includes ensuring access to health care and the promotion of healthy living.
Occupational health programmes seek to prevent and mitigate occupational health risks, participate both permanent employees and the employees of service providers. Health programmes facilitate the analysis, monitoring and management of exposure, and provide preventative measures for a range of occupational health risks. The industry focuses on effective employee communication on risk and prevention. Rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes are also provided.
The South African coal mining industry promotes a healthy workforce through integrated health and wellness programmes. Wellness programmes, with an emphasis on lifestyle diseases, aim to reduce health risks, providing access to health care, and educating, informing and empowering employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Focus is on reducing lifestyle diseases (such as hypertension, diabetes and cholesterol levels), managing the risks of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, and effectively managing mental health conditions.
The primary occupational health concerns associated with coal mining in South Africa are:
The industry is guided by extensive health and safety legislation and regulations when dealing with occupational health. Government monitors and enforces compliance to health and safety measures at mines and audits and inspections are conducted to ensure compliance with legal provisions. The audits evaluate mine management systems for prevention of exposure of employees to noise and dust.
South Africa's Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) provides for an inclusive, tri-partite approach to safety and health, requiring industry, unions and government to act in concert in promoting safety and health in the workplace. This approach can be directly linked to an overall improvement in safety and health performance.
The Mine Health and Safety Inspectorate of the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), established in terms of the MHSA, is responsible for the overall regulation of safeguarding the health and safety of mine employees, as well as residents of areas affected by mining operations. The Chief Inspector of Mines has extensive authority, and may impose directives to prohibit certain work in certain areas, and/or activities. These stoppages may be extended to entire mines, should the inspectorate have valid reason for such a decision.
As required by the MHSA, individual companies and mines have agreements in place that regulate aspects of safety and health in the workplace, and that make provision for joint planning, decision-making, training and auditing. Typically, each shaft has its own health and safety committee that comprises representatives from management and unions. These committees seek to ensure compliance with regulations, provide safety training for all employees, and promote active collaboration in all matters relating to safety and health. They provide a forum for the investigation of accidents and incidents and the findings are documented and shared. Collaboration on matters of health and safety in the mining industry is both extensive and intensive.
The Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) was set up in 1996 to direct safety in the mining industry and to respond to industry safety challenges. This body was built on the achievements of decades of fundamental research and funded by the mining industry. The MHSC comprises a tripartite board represented by the state, employers and organised labour, under the chairmanship of the Chief Inspector of Mines. The MHSC is funded by public revenue and is accountable to Parliament.
The MHSC's primary tasks are to advise the Minister of Mineral Resources on occupational health and safety legislation and research outcomes focused on improving and promoting occupational health and safety in South African mines.
The MHSC works closely with the Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA), which plays a critical role in addressing skills shortages in the mining industry through capacity development and process improvement. The MQA is mandated to ensure that the mining and minerals sector has sufficient numbers of competent people who have been trained to improve health and safety standards and processes.
Coal mining members of the Chamber of Mines participate in the Mining Industry Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) Learning Hub. Established in 2009, the Learning Hub encourages mining companies to learn from pockets of excellence within the industry through an adoption process which involves identifying, documenting, demonstrating and facilitating widespread adoption of leading practices that have the greatest potential to address the major risks in health and safety areas such as falls of ground, transport and machinery, dust and noise. See www.mosh.co.za
Dust exposure in coal mines is a risk factor for occupational lung diseases such as coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung; chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD); and lung function deficiency.
Employee exposure varies considerably as some employees are continuously exposed while others are exposed for short periods of time. Measuring reliably is the key to understanding employees' exposure and to designing effective dust control. Dust sampling in the South African coal industry has been a legal requirement for several decades. Daily dust-suppression inspections take place at operations and reports are made to the DMR on dust levels as part of its policy to continuously monitor all operations.
Dust suppression systems are key to preventing the exposure of employees to unacceptable levels of dust. Water is the single most important factor that determines the successful and sustainable operation of a dust suppression system. Dust control is a complex combination of managing different aspects such as air flow, atomising water particles enabling coagulation of dust and mist, changing surface tension of water by adding a surfactant and creating the correct pressure through specific nozzles to enable coagulation.
Coal mining companies have been incorporating dust-suppression interventions and technology since the 1960s and have been at the forefront of developing new dust-suppression equipment and techniques in South Africa. The industry continuously explores and tests these innovations through research and development, and incorporates them into operations to enhance the safety and health of employees. Equipment such as continuous miners are remotely-controlled and contain dust-suppression technology, such as high-pressure water-spray systems and scrubbers.
Coal mining employees are equipped with appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE).
Operations are continuously ventilated, which contributes to a healthier working environment as large quantities of clean air enter the mine areas underground and dilute the dust concentration.
At an occupational health and safety summit in November 2016, mining industry stakeholders agreed that, by December 2024, 95% of all exposure measurement results of coal dust respirable particulate must be below the level of 1.5mg/m3 (<5% silica).
Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) has been recognised as a major occupational health risk in the South African coal mining industry. Prolonged exposure to hazardous noise more than 85 dBA causes loss of hearing acuity, which occurs gradually.
Throughout the industry, emphasis is placed on noise suppression (that is silencing at the source) and hearing conservation. An important part of the latter is noise monitoring to prevent exposure, provision of PPE, and regular hearing tests.
Occupational health and safety targets were set by the Mine Health and Safety Council in 2014 with the aim of eliminating NIHL:
Public health issues affect the health and wellbeing of our employees outside of the workplace but also have the potential to impact safety and health in the workplace. The industry's holistic approach to health care endeavours to address both consequences of public health issues.
The primary public health issues in South Africa are:
Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) has a high social and economic cost, both for the individuals concerned and for the whole industry. It is a serious opportunistic infection and is the leading cause of death for people living with HIV.
The coal mining industry's wellness programmes educate employees about TB and provides support for the management of the disease. The programmes are audited by government to evaluate improvements.
The prevention, management and treatment of HIV/AIDS plays a critical role in the well-being of employees and communities – and is also key to sound economic and social development. The South African coal mining industry works together with government to address this issue.
Industry initiatives include HIV wellness programmes which educate employees about HIV/AIDS and its prevention; testing and counselling; and treatment programmes. The coal mining industry was in the forefront of rolling out antiretroviral therapy (ART) to employees. Programmes are audited by government to evaluate improvements.
Employee fatigue is a critical safety issue affecting many mines in South Africa. Many high-profile accidents point to fatigue as a causal or contributory factor. Fatigue develops for many reasons including physically demanding work activities and an unhealthy lifestyle, which may include the abuse of alcohol and drugs. The industry has adopted a zero tolerance approach to drug abuse in the interests of all employees' safety.
The industry incorporates fatigue and substance abuse management into its mine safety management systems. Wellness programmes address the subjects of work fatigue and alcohol and drug abuse and emphasise the need the need for a healthy lifestyle.