According to information just published by Reuters, a class action has been filed by ex-miners against more than 30 gold firms on behalf of 17,000 former miners who claim they contracted silicosis due to the companies’ negligence in providing health and safety.
The Plaintiff miners are from South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho, the latter being the landlocked kingdom that has provided hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to South Africa’s gold mining operations over the past century. The incidence of silicosis in miners is very pronounced in South Africa. A June 2008 survey undertaken of gold miners from Lesotho revealed silicosis rates as high as 25%, with a high co-morbidity of turberculosis.
The lawsuit follows a landmark ruling in 2011 involving South African former gold miner Thembekile Mankanyi where the Court found that Mankanyi and his family were free to pursue compensation at common law, rising to nearly $350,000, from his former employer AngloGold Ashanti.
This ruling has set a precedent by permitting lung-diseased miners to sue their employers for damages, leaving the entire private sector in the South African mining industry exposed to class-action lawsuits from former employees.
Whilst the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA) provides for miners to claim state compensation for silicosis, many miners who would now be eligible under the legislation, are deprived of being able to claim as they are no longer working in the industry. This has left many workers unable to work because of silicosis which they contracted years previously uncompensated.
This often leaves them unable to receive even basic treatment, let alone substantive financial compensation. According to one study, only 2% of the nearly 300,000 miners who are eligible for compensation have received money to which they are entitled. The legal issues which divided the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court are discussed here, involving two compensation schemes for occupation diseases in operation for workers in South Africa.
The contraction of lung disease can be minimised by implementing active prevention methods, thus improving underground dust management practices and reducing the dust exposure of mining employees. Measures can be taken to limit the release of silica dust into the atmosphere in the first instance and engineering controls and ventilation systems used to ensure escaping dusts do not infiltrate the lungs of miners. Air conditioned cabs, wetting processes and other dust control methods are some of the controls available to reduce the risk of exposure to silica dust.
Well known measures limiting airborne dust include the use of water spray systems to wet down drilled rock combined with the use of chemical applications on underground walls to remove dusts which stick to their surface. A combination of wet methods, ventilation and shrouding, which essentially involves separating the worker from the point at which dust is generated can be used to reduce the exposure of the worker to the disease and thereby minimise the contraction of the disease.
The companies named as Defendants in the class action have either owned or operated 78 different gold mines from 1965 to the present, and include third-largest global bullion producer AngloGold Ashanti, and fourth-largest Gold Fields and Harmony Gold.
Next to coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, known as ‘black lung’, silicosis is one of the primary occupational respiratory lung diseases that has plagued the industry, and is caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. The tragedy is that silicosis is a preventable workplace health hazard, yet it is still prevalent, particularly in developing countries.
Underground gold mining operations which entail drilling through rock with high quartz concentrations pose particular health risks. Gold mines of South Africa, staffed by a mostly migrant workforce and which are often conducted at great underground depths have become notorious for the development of silicosis in miners.
In 2006, the Australian Government released a report from a Senate enquiry into toxic dust which revealed that more scientific data was required on silicosis to properly guage safe levels of exposure, to ensure that exposure standards were set at a risk which could reliably be regarded as acceptable. There was concern that there was a poor awareness of the dangers of invisible silica particles by workers in the mining and resource industry.