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Vaal Reefs, 10 May 1995

10 May 1995 is a date that will forever be etched in the minds of families of the 104 mineworkers who lost their lives in the Vaal Reefs mine disaster, and of their colleagues and the industry as a whole.

The tragedy occurred at Vaal Reefs’ #2 Shaft near Orkney in North West Province when an underground locomotive crashed through a barrier into the shaft at a level of 1,700 metres below surface, falling onto a conveyance that was transporting 104 mineworkers underground. The impact caused the conveyance to plunge to the bottom of the shaft, 2,300 metres below surface.

The tragedy spurred a concerted push by mining stakeholders for revisions in legislation and the adoption of a holistic approach to mine health and safety. The Vaal Reefs accident was instructive in the drafting of new legislation, and presaged the promulgation of the Mine Health and Safety Act 29 of 1996, which was viewed as revolutionary at its time, given the reliance it put on tripartite structures: employers, government and unions. The act is still highly regarded today and was reviewed in 2008 where enforcement provisions were strengthened amongst other amendments.

The Leon Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate mining disasters. Among the findings in the ensuing report was the observation that there had been no safety device in place to adequately prevent the loco from entering the shaft. The detaching hook was found to have opened during the accident and released the conveyance from the rope, allowing it to fall to the bottom of the shaft. Had the detaching hook not opened, the elasticity of the rope would have been sufficient to prevent it from breaking with the consequence that many lives, particularly those of the men on the lower deck, may have been saved.

Following the event, the South African Safety in Mining Research Council (SIMRAC) undertook much research aimed at mitigating the risks of detaching hooks. In December 2000, SIMRAC released a risk assessment of hoisting with and without a safety detaching hook. The results of the project indicated that, as currently implemented in the South Africa mining industry, safety detaching hooks are likely to cause roughly three times more fatalities than would be caused if no detaching hooks were used. For detaching hooks to be acceptable they must be shown not to open under impact energy levels of 20 MJ and masses of 5 ton.

Against this tragedy, Anglo American Corporation, Vaal Reefs Exploration and Mining, and the National Union of Mineworkers created the Vaal Reefs Disaster Trust with the primary objective of providing financial assistance and support to the 431 dependants of employees who died. In 2017 the trust saw more than 80 of the children it supported studying at tertiary level.

Today, the Minerals Council South Africa reflects on this terrible tragedy. The Minerals Council’s Khumbul’ekhaya holistic strategic focus for 2021 is aimed at addressing safety challenges through critical control management processes, culture transformation and peer review risk management, leading indicators, learning from incidents such as Vaal Reefs and the digitisation of safety data for better decision making.

The South African mining industry is committed to a policy of zero harm and strives to ensure that every mineworker returns from work unharmed and in sound health every day.
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