New book explores mine safety at the frontlines

A new book by Dr Sizwe Phakathi provides unique insights into the workings of a deep-level underground mine in South Africa.

As of 18 December 2017, 86 South African mineworkers, most of them bread winners, died in the line of duty in 2017, up by 13 fatalities recorded by the industry in 2016.

A new book, authored by Dr Sizwe Phakathi, head of Safety and Sustainable Development at the South African Chamber of Mines, addresses a range of work related issues that affects underground safety.

The book, titled Production, safety and teamwork in a deep-level mining workplace – perspectives from the rock-face, is a rare journey to the deep, mysterious world of underground mining.

In the book Phakathi asks pertinent questions about how teams of mineworkers respond to productivity and safety enhancing initiatives; and how they go about their day-to-day work at the point of production.

The book is based on Phakathi’s completed PhD research, and introduces those who have not yet ventured down a 3000m deep mining shaft, to the rigours of toiling in one of the most unforgiving working environments on earth. But more importantly, it is a manual for each shift-overseer, mine captain, manager, executive and CEO. The book should become a reference for underground team leaders, general managers and workers. It is a must for academics and managers in the mining industry. In fact, it adds value to team leaders, supervisors, managers and executives across industries.

Phakathi used qualitative, ethnographic methodologies to complete his research, which means he immersed himself in the daily working lives of the production crews in an ultra-deep South African gold mine. He worked with the crews at the rock-face; ate, drank and watched soccer with them; and slept in the mine hostel for more than six months.

The result is a book that encapsulates, more than any other previous work, the challenges, struggles and day-to day hardships of deep-level gold mining.

In the book, Phakathi dissects the way underground mining crews operate to increase production, improve safety and to work together as a team. The research touches on the relationship between crew members and their supervisors, and shows how top management plays a critical role in ensuring that production crews have sufficient resources to meet daily targets.

He writes extensively about the changing nature of the workplace, and what role safety plays, and should play, in the everyday life of a miner. “I believe that the voice from the frontline is missing in boardroom discussions about organisational safety, production and people management. We can talk about zero harm every day, but if the voice of the worker at the rock-face is not heard, our discussions remain futile,” says Phakathi.

The book reflects on a number of discussion points currently raging in the mining industry. The drive to increase production, unyielding daily, monthly and yearly targets, and the related bonus system, are all factors that could compromise a mine’s safety record.

The carrot of a bigger bonus, if higher production figures are recorded, has resulted in workers employing innovative ways to advance a few extra metres, despite day to day constraints.

Mineworkers use the term Planisa (which is derived from the Afrikaans saying “‘n boer maak ‘n plan”, to make a plan) to describe their endeavours to do whatever they can to surpass their targets, and as a result, supplement their monthly incomes.

Although this often results in better ways of mining, it is a double edge sword, as miners will forsake their own safety in the urge to achieve, or improve their targets. “Planisa is not necessarily bad as it improvises both safety and production. It is a very innovative strategy (in most cases), but we need to eliminate the unsafe and unhealthy aspects of it,” says Phakathi.

Commenting on the book, Sean Jones, managing director of the Artisan Training Institute (ATI) and a student of Phakathi says the expert text helps the reader to understand the nuanced aspects of safety in underground mining. “Revealing these learnings, makes a strong practice contribution not only for understanding the connection between operational safety, production and work relations in underground mining, but also in other industries in general. This is a must read for any employer committed to understanding how policy, plus behavioural and cultural nuance impacts safe work practice,” he says.

Phakathi is not happy with the 2017 fatality rate. “It was the first time in ten years that the fatality figure actually increased, and that is a concern,” he says. “South Africa’s gold mines are ageing, and that brings increased risks of fall of ground and seismicity.

The Chamber of Mines is continuously working to ensure better safety and to improve technology. For example, they are focussing on the practice of mining with nets and bolts to counteract fall of ground, and on issues of underground transport, which remains one of the biggest causes of fatalities. The Chamber has made behavioural safety one of their primary concerns,” Phakathi concludes.

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