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Leon Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry (Report 1995)

South Africa has often prided itself as being the most advanced mining country in the world with regard to the development of innovative technologies for exploiting mineral resources. The degree of disease burden produced in the process of these mining endeavours has been on the other hand a neglected epidemic. Relentless pressure from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) resulted in the government and employers acceding to a commission being set up to investigate these conditions. The Leon Commission of Inquiry was the first to look into OHS in the South African mining industry for more than 30 years. No Commission with such wide ranging terms of reference to inquire into all aspects of the regulation of OHS had ever been appointed. The Commission found that over 69,000 mineworkers had died in the first 93 years of this century, and more than a million were seriously injured. Other accident statistics indicated that:

  • 1,54 mineworkers were killed and 25,8 seriously injured for every 1000 workers exposed to underground risk work
  • the vast majority of injuries and deaths occurred at or in underground mines (99%)
  • gold mines are the most dangerous, accounting for 85,6% of all reported injuries and 72,7% of all reported fatalities
  • 61,7% of gold mining fatalities were due to underground rockbursts or rockfalls
  • the second most dangerous subsector was the coal industry which was responsible for 15,4% of all mining fatalities
  • when compared to 19 other countries South Africa had the sixth highest fatality rate

In its investigations the Leon Commission sketched the following occupational health experience of miners:

  • Tuberculosis rates of 58 per thousand after 15 years of exposure
  • Shaft sinkers and stopers working 8000 shifts have more than 30% probability of developing silicosis
  • 25% of the workforce would present with asbestos related disease including lung cancer after 20 years of exposure in an asbestos mine
  • 50-60% of coal miners would develop coal miners pneumoconiosis after 40 years of exposure
  • 40-80% of workers involved in drilling operations would have hearing problems after 10 years of exposure

The main emphasis and focus of occupational health activity on the mines has thus been on regulating the compensation for occupational diseases rather than the prevention thereof. The Minerals Act focused predominantly on the safety issues in the mining industry with no emphasis on promoting the occupational health status of workers. These deficiencies provided the impetus for the Commission recommending the following:

  • drafting of a new Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA, 1996) to provide the comprehensive legal framework for creating a health and safe working environment
  • restructuring of the enforcement agency
  • promulgating of regulations on rockfalls and rockbursts
  • promulgating of regulations and protective measures to protect the health of workers including occupational hygiene and medical surveillance programmes with specific reference to tuberculosis
  • restructuring of research institutions and health information systems
  • ensuring appropriate training and certification of all workers in the industry

It is worth noting that the MHSA is better than its counter part, the OHSA, in that it entrenches the right of workers to refuse to do dangerous work, thereby paving the way for improved health and safety conditions in the industry.