South Africa gold mining companies face silicosis lawsuit

They have won praise for HIV work, but are accused of failing to safeguard workers from lung diseases
Miners protest in 2015 in support of colleagues who had filed a lawsuit against their employers for failure to protect them from silicosis © Getty

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South Africa is a country of contrasts. Many people in its cities enjoy privileged lives working for multinational companies with workplace health, safety and wellbeing provisions that match the best in the US or Europe.

At the same time, more than half the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. South Africa has scored consistently as one of the most unequal societies in the world, as defined by the Gini index, a measure of income distribution.

Nowhere is that story of contrasting fortunes more evident than in the mining industry, whose workforce is particularly vulnerable to health and wellbeing problems. While South Africa’s mining companies have been praised for their response to the HIV-Aids epidemic, they have been widely criticised for their failure to protect workers against lung diseases.

In March 2016, mining companies Anglo American and AngloGold Ashanti agreed a settlement with 4,400 mine workers who had contracted silicosis — a lung disease caused by inhaling fine dust — at work. The companies did not admit liability but agreed to pay up to R464m ($35m) into a trust to compensate the claimants.

More significant for the industry is a class-action lawsuit against 29 companies, which have operated or continue to operate gold mines, for their failure to protect workers from silicosis. A second suit charges that the companies also failed to protect workers from conditions that led to them contracting tuberculosis — silicosis sufferers are particularly vulnerable to the disease. According to some estimates, the incidence of TB among miners is four times the national average.

The two cases are being heard as a single class-action suit that includes current and former miners who have worked since 1965 and developed the diseases, and the dependants of those who have already died.

A doctor examines an X-ray of a miner’s silicosis-affected lungs © AP

Mineworkers from neighbouring Lesotho are also affected. Puseletso Salae, country manager of the Lesotho-based Mineworkers Development Agency, which assists former miners and their families, says that for decades in his country, there was no follow-up of the thousands of workers who had left the mines in South Africa. Lesotho, which is encircled by South Africa, has minimal health infrastructure and, until recently, had no specialist centre to treat occupational lung diseases. The result was tens of thousands of mining families thrown into poverty by the illness and death of their breadwinner. “The mines have just exploited our people,” he says. “These men have been in South Africa for years. When they come back home the only thing they have with them is silicosis and TB.”

Gold mining goes back well over a century in South Africa. Although the sector is shrinking, the South African Chamber of Mines, an organisation representing employers in the mining industry, estimates about 120,000 people are employed in the country’s gold sector.

Silicosis — identified as a threat to mine workers’ health more than a century ago — can take 10-30 years after exposure to appear. In allowing the class-action suit to go ahead in May last year, the High Court judge said hundreds of thousands of miners may have been affected.

South Africa has had a modest compensation system for more than 40 years, but it has been criticised as inadequate. “It is well known that the lung disease compensation system has over the past number of years become very badly administered, which has meant very long delays and a growing backlog in payments to eligible claimants,” says Alan Fine, spokesman for the Working Group on Occupational Lung Diseases, which was formed in 2014 and represents six of the largest South African mining companies. The group aims to strengthen the compensation scheme, bolster prevention measures and improve medical care for occupational lung diseases in mining.

Fine defends the mining companies’ records on employee wellbeing, pointing out that those the working group represents were among the first organisations in South Africa to provide anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for employees with HIV.

They began offering ART in 2002, contradicting the policy of the South African government, which under president Thabo Mbeki denied that the disease was caused by a virus and refused to provide the treatment. According to the working group, ART has also helped reduce TB rates. Companies now offer regular TB screening and treatment as part of their employee healthcare service, although they admit there are “challenges regarding former mineworkers, particularly those living in rural areas”.

© EPA

In recent years the companies have also begun taking action on occupational lung disease. In 2003, they committed to a Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) goal of no new cases of silicosis among mineworkers who had not been exposed to the disease before 2008, but because silicosis takes so long to appear, it will be many years before they know whether they have been successful.

They have also pledged to meet new 2014 MHSC guidelines on significantly reducing dust levels in mines and making investments in improved anti-dust measures in drilling, ventilation, filtration and blasting, among others.

The improvements have been acknowledged by many involved in the class-action suit.

But when asked why, given the link between mining and silicosis, the companies did not implement better measures to protect workers sooner, Fine says: “South Africa has a long and troubled social and political history and the mining industry was part of that.“

As the court process continues, the working group and lawyers for the mine workers are trying to agree a settlement for the class-action claimants. Several companies’ most recent financial results show provisions to settle the claims.

But the clock is ticking. Richard Spoor, a lawyer specialising in occupational health and safety and a member of the team representing the miners in the class-action litigation, says about 4 per cent of the miners in the suit are dying every year. “There is a general consensus that we need to achieve a settlement quickly and get benefits to people while they’re still alive. It’s in everybody’s interests.” 

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