On this day in 1986, 31 years ago, 177 miners lost their lives and another 235 were injured in what would be remembered as one of South Africa’s worst mining disasters.
The use of an acetylene torch sparked flames that spread rapidly through mineworkings, igniting plastic insulation on wiring and polyurethane foam sprayed on sidewalls and hanging walls to keep them dry. Polyurethane foam contains a sealant that emits toxic and dangerous fumes when it burns, and most of the miners succumbed to the toxic fumes emitted by the burning sealant.
This mining disaster, one of South Africa’s worst, left the misery and mourning of the loss of so many friends, colleagues and family members in its wake. Within a day of the accident, the Chamber of Mines itself established a Hazardous Material Unit as part of its research arm. And this unit’s work led to the withdrawal of many potentially toxic plastics from underground. Consequently, these materials were replaced with similar but safer products. It is also a regulatory requirement for mine equipment, where feasible, to be built and fitted with non-inflammable materials as well as with flame retardants. And, as an added measure, the country’s gold mines were equipped with self-contained self-rescue equipment.
The establishment of the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC), recommended by the Leon Commission of Inquiry of 1993, identified a lack of an on-site emergency response plan as a key area of concern underground. As a result, the Mining Regulation Advisory Committee commissioned the compilation of guidelines for the Mandatory Code of Practice for Emergency Preparedness and Response. Early and effective underground fire control is now possible through advanced and continuous mine-monitoring control systems coupled with fire detection and suppression systems. In 2014, the Mine Health and Safety Act Regulations relating to Rescue, First Aid, Emergency Preparedness and Response were amended, further leading to the introduction of refuge bays and self-contained rescuers. These refuge bays are equipped with respirable air, potable water, ablution facilities, illumination, first-aid equipment and a robust communication system that connects to surface.
The value of these safety improvements was clearly demonstrated in 2015 when an underground fire broke out at Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine. Mineworkers were able to seek shelter in refuge bays while the fire was successfully contained by Mine Rescue Services. Although the fire took place 2,300 metres below surface, no lives were lost and 486 employees were brought safely to surface.
The Chamber and its members are committed to creating a mining environment of Zero Harm and to ensuring that each and every mine worker returns from work unharmed and healthy every day. Using the lessons learnt from mine accidents such as that at Kinross and others, we are working towards an industry in which incidents that affect the safety of mining people can no longer occur.