The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is reviewing the guidelines for issuing a Section 54 in terms of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) due to pressure from USASA. Section 54s and mine stoppages cost an estimated R4.6 billion per annum in lost production. But, Section 54s save lives.
The conflict between the law’s intention and its application arises when an entire mining operation is closed for only one affected workplace or plant. Steve Simmonds, Executive Head of Business Development at IsoMetrix, explains how this issue could be resolved.
“The provisions of Section 54 require the inspector to establish objectively that a state of affairs would lead a reasonable person to believe that it may endanger the health and safety of any person at the mine and contemplates an instruction that is limited by the extent to which it is necessary to protect the health and safety of persons at the mine,” says Steve.
In practice, an overzealous interpretation of the law by inspectors can result in costly mine closures for safety infractions that arguably could have been better served by the remedial action of a Section 55.
The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) agreed to suspend the Withdrawal of Certificates of Competence in terms of Section 54 of the Mines Health and Safety Act (MHSA) until the DMR has finalized enforcement guidelines due to the pressure from the trade union UASA and the Chamber of Mines. This comes after AngloGold Ashanti’s Kopaneng Mine was issued with a Section 54 stoppage in October 2016.
After an inspection on 17 October 2016 of a small area of Anglo Gold Ashanti’s Kopaneng Mine in Orkney, six instructions were issued in terms of Section 54 of the MHSA, resulting in the shutdown of the entire mine – at a staggering loss of R9.5 million a day.
While a Section 54 is undoubtedly useful and necessary, an inspector needs to utilize it correctly. Closing mines on account of minor safety infractions in a single area, without specific reference to objective facts and circumstances that clearly indicate that the entire mining operation is unsafe, negates the purpose and intention of a Section 54.
“One of the problems could well be the level of understanding and knowledge of unsafe acts in mining and conditions that the Department of Mineral Resources’ inspectors have acquired to allow them to be able to judge when such situations require the implementation of a Section 54,” says Steve.
In many cases, a Section 55 of the MHSA may be more suitable, Steve explains that, “There is no clear delineation that informs a mining inspector’s power to issue a Section 54. In many cases, a Section 55 might well be more appropriate and beneficial for the ongoing improvement of mine safety.”
Section 55 of the MHSA provides that: “If an inspector has reason to believe that an employer has failed to comply with any provisions of this Act, the inspector may instruct that employer in writing to take any steps that the inspector considers necessary to comply with the provision.”
“Another way to add value regarding the judgment required when contemplating issuing a Section 54 would be to ensure that training of the country’s inspectorate is ongoing,” explains Steve, “By emphasizing the practical experience of inspectors – through internship programs, for example. It is important that the inspectors are adequately trained, and have a solid understanding of mines and mining operations.”
“There is also a need for commitment from industry to ensure employees are adequately trained in health and safety to better understand the consequences of unsafe work practices,” says Steve. He adds that Safety, like Charity, must begin at home. The very fact that more than 90% of incidents around the world happen because of ‘Unsafe acts’ (human element), means that people either are ignorant, have partial knowledge, careless, carefree about their acts/actions and the consequence of the same of their own and other’s safety. “Employees and communities need to embrace the culture of safety to avoid unnecessary work challenges”.
Section 54s are necessary. Mining is a dangerous undertaking and legislation helps the mining industry to maintain high standards of safety. “However, the law is also somewhat open to interpretation, and as such, Section 54s should be issued with the utmost judiciousness,” concludes Steve.