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In the spotlight

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, of their colleagues and the industry as a whole.

The tragedy occurred at Vaal Reefs’ #2 Shaft near Orkney in Northwest 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 locomotive 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.

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, for detaching hooks to be acceptable they must be shown not to open under impact energy levels of 20 megajoules and masses of 5 tonnes.

After 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 the employees who had died.

Vision Zero is a global prevention strategy developed by the International Social Security Association (ISSA), providing a comprehensive yet simple framework to address health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace in a systematic manner. The Minerals Council supports ISSA Mining and the Vision Zero seven golden rules for health and safety :

  1. Take leadership – demonstrate commitment
  2. Identify hazards – control risks
  3. Define targets – develop programmes
  4. Ensure a safe and healthy system –be well-organised
  5. Ensure safety and health in machines, equipment and workplaces
  6. Improve qualifications – develop competence
  7. Invest in people – motivate by participation

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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