VENTERSDORP, South Africa (Reuters) - For David Msiza, South Africa’s chief mines inspector, the issue of safety underground has become personal; he believes many mining bosses just don’t care.
A surge in government-ordered safety stoppages has already hit output in the world’s largest platinum producer and the murder of a female miner underground last month means South Africa’s mines are going to come under even more scrutiny.
With deaths among miners up 10 percent in the first two months of this year - albeit alongside a sharp drop in injuries - the industry is going to keep feeling the heat.
Mine deaths have plunged since the end of white-minority apartheid rule in 1994 but around 10 miners, the vast majority of them black, are still killed every month, chiefly in accidents.
“Some of the CEOs say they care about people’s safety, but their behaviour does not show that,” said Msiza, a towering man dubbed “Mr. Section 54” after the clause that can close a mine for safety violations.
Shortly after taking over as the Department of Mineral Resource’s chief mines inspector, Msiza launched a drive last year to cut the death rate.
Safety-related stoppages cost the platinum sector 300,000 ounces last year in lost output -- about 5 percent of global production and worth about $500 million at current prices.
Executives say they accept the need for more safety.
“If we can’t mine safely, we can’t mine. That’s our vision. So we have to improve our safety,” said Nick Holland, chief executive of world number 4 gold producer Gold Fields.
But some captains of the industry have complained the current campaign is overzealous.
In a rare interview with Reuters, Msiza said executives needed to change their behaviour.
“There was an incident where a worker was trapped underground because of a fall of ground. The CEO was in the country. For three days he’s never been to the mine,” Msiza said, his voice rising in anger.
When the CEO did arrive on the scene, he received scant details of the trapped man. “They didn’t even know that the wife of the person had just delivered a baby,” Msiza said.
He was speaking outside the modest home of Mary Mosiane, 45, whose daughter Pinky was murdered underground at an Anglo American Platinum mine by unknown assailants.
As a result, the industry will have also have to ensure its growing female workforce is adequately protected in what remains very much a male-dominated culture.
“As inspectors, we will require all the regional offices to engage with the mines to clearly indicate what measures they are going to take to put in place to ensure the safety and security of the women employees,” Msiza said.
The murder is seen as a blow to a government target of raising the percentage of women in the mining workforce to at least 10 percent.
Gender equality is a broad policy goal of the ruling African National Congress but it often goes against the cultural grain in South Africa, where social conservatism and traditional views hold sway with many across the racial lines.
“On the issue of gender and participation in the mining industry this incident really set us back. It sends a message that women are not acceptable to the mining industry,” mines minister Susan Shabangu told Reuters.
“It also challenges the mine bosses, especially the CEOs who are also men. How best are they going to protect women who are employed in the mining industry, especially those with an intention of going underground,” she said.
Mining companies say they are working to transform their labour forces and raise the number of women in them.
More broadly, the government sees success in its safety drive. Msiza said that for the first time in living memory, South Africa in 2011 did not record one mining “disaster,” defined as a single incident in which four or more workers die.
Mining deaths in the first quarter of last year spiked 25 percent but when 2011 ended, 123 miners had been killed, a slight drop from 127 in 2010.
Of a mining labour force of 500,000, that equates to one in 3,900 - tough odds for a job that can pay as little as 4,000 rand (333 pounds) a month.
But in the first two months of this year, Department of Mineral Resource data shows 22 people were killed compared with 20 in the same period last year. In the platinum sector, the death toll rose to seven from five.
But injuries in the January to February period this year fell almost 60 percent -- to 190 from 466 -- a significant drop.
And fatalities and injuries in the Rustenburg area, which has been in focus, are way down: deaths over the period fell to 4 from 7 while injuries plunged 87 percent to 19 from 148.
This could stem in part from working days lost to the stoppages and a six-week illegal strike at Impala Platinum’s Rustenburg operation, the world’s largest platinum mine.
The latest drive is seen accelerating a safety trend that has been positive for more than two decades. According to government data, 855 miners were killed in South Africa in 1986 but that number has fallen steadily to the 2011 record low.
Editing by Anthony Barker and Veronica Brown