JOHANNESBURG (Business Day) -- The death of nine workers when a lift cable snapped at Gold Fields' [NYSE:GFI] South Deep mine last Thursday was a baptism of fire for incoming CEO Nick Holland, who officially took on the role the same day.
The May Day accident brought to 14 the number of deaths at Gold Fields' mines last week, after five other workers died in two other separate incidents involving falls of ground at the South Deep and Driefontein mines.
It is also the second similar incident at South Deep involving a cable failure. In May 2006, under previous owners Western Areas and Barrick Gold [NYSE:ABX; TSX:ABX], a 28-tonne skip plunged down South Deep's main shaft when the clips attaching the cable to the winder came loose, causing considerable damage but no fatalities.
According to Gold Fields statistics, between January and the end of last month, which excludes the latest incident, the number of fatalities at its mines rose to 11 from eight in the same period last year. For the whole of last year, Gold Fields reported 37 fatalities.
But Gold Fields is not alone in reporting an alarming increase in mine deaths. The National Union Mineworkers (NUM) pointed out at Anglo American's [Nasdaq:AAUK; LSE:AAL] Tripartite Safety Summit last week that AngloGold Ashanti [NYSE:AU] had 27 fatalities last year and Anglo Platinum [JSE:AMS] 24.
According to minerals and energy department statistics, the provisional number of mining deaths last year rose to 220 compared with 2006's 201, an increase of 6.7% as a proportion of the number of miners at work.
The South African mining industry has been grappling for the past year with the seemingly intractable problem that mine deaths keep rising at the same time as efforts to eliminate fatalities have been redoubled.
At the Mine Health and Safety Summit in 2005, employers, labour and the government agreed on a target of cutting South Africa's safety statistics by 20% a year and bringing them into line with international statistics. Three years later, the industry is falling well short of that target.
Wits University's Prof Philip Frankel said yesterday the main issue was that in the past couple of years South Africa's mining houses had implemented a technique called "behavioural-based safety", which had worked well in Canada, Australia and the U.S. But it did not work in South Africa, with its own particular history and tensions. The technique worked at top management level but was not effective at the level of supervisors and particularly operators.
What was needed, Frankel said, was an approach towards safety that workers at the middle and bottom ranks felt comfortable with and took ownership of, and went beyond the language of safety to active engagement with it.
NUM president Senzeni Zokwana told Anglo's Tripartite Safety Summit last week that the culture of the mining industry in the past had been to blame workers, saying they were killed or injured because they did not "apply their minds". He emphasised the need for proper training in safety and addressing basic wages.
Holland was locked in meetings yesterday, related both to the latest incidents and the report of the group's March quarterly performance due on Friday.
The group's spokesman, Andrew Davidson, said an investigation into the causes of the May Day accident was under way and would take some time. He could not suggest reasons why it had happened.
But he reiterated that the group's policy was that safety had to come before production.