The mining strike has many health and safety consequences

Mabila Mathebula discusses the importance of skills management in health and safety.

The long platinum mining strike of 2014 has many health, safety and corporate culture consequences, writes Mabila Mathebula.

Some of the miners who tried to return to work failed their medical examination due to improper diet. Some people turn to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, illicit sex with a high risk of HIV and AIDS.

More HIV infections could further cripple business, the state, and labour organisations for years after the mining strike.

Damaging criticism has been levelled at the president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCO), Joseph Mathunjwa, for factionalising labour.

The Sunday Independent pointed out the South African Gini Co-efficient, an index that measures the degree of inequality in the distribution of income, as one of the underlying causes of industrial unrest.

Several international security and enterprise risk assessment and corporate governance indices also take income disparaty as one of the indicators of stability and general prosperity.

Organisational mistakes and consequences

In his book on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey notes the differences between a mistake and a consequence. He eloquently argues that a mistake is a wrong that one is incapable to right.

A consequence is something that one could do nothing about. It is spilled milk. The long strike at the platinum belt, including the traumatic of the Marikana disaster (see earlier posts and analyses on Sheqafrica.com) when several miners were killed by the police in early spring two years ago, will have tremendous consequences on the health of the miners and on mining safety culture, which is already struggling to claw its way towards the distant world standard.

Several consequences are inevitable:
• health disorders
• emotional exhaustion
• sleep problems
• depression
• anxiety
• deteriorating relationships
• lack of trust
• lack of team spirit
• startup hitches.
• erosion of health and safety ethics and programmes.

Long after the mining houses and the unions have settled the mining strike dispute, these consequences will remain active. The motto of ‘zero harm’ rings hollow after the invasion of zama-zama illegal miners into old shafts, the export of illicit gold to Europe, and the Marikana disaster.

The warring parties would have to manage a range of unintended consequences back at work.

The workplace has turned into a perilous tower. The unions have forgotten the African proverbs; Do not call the forest that shelters you a jungle. And; When elephants fight, the grass suffers.

The mining strike demonstrates that our society lacks wisdom, integrity, communication and compact. We are prone to crises.

Problems become opportunities when the right people join forces, but where are the right people?

The tug of war between management and between labour unions is causing untold misery to the entire mining community.

As stress levels rise, intimidation and murder become commonplace. This is brotherly war, or brodertwis out of proportion to the initial problem and limiting future options.

Mental health is the key to health

A mental health survey in the United Kingdom, found that one to five workers had become physically ill from stress during their careers.

Unmanageable pressure had caused 1 to 4 to cry at work. The platinum belt probably has more inherent and induced stresses than the United Kingdom. Some workers are killed slowly by stress while some leaders dither and seek their own benefit.

Stress is part of life

A recent issue of Awake identified these causes of stress:
• Insecurity, financial or otherwise
• demanding routines
• interpersonal conflicts
• traumatic experience.’

The striking workers are exposed to all of the above causes of stress. According to the American Psychological Association, stress can either be functional or dysfunctional: “Stress is to the human being condition what tension is to violin string: too little and the music is dull and raspy; too much and the music is shrill or the strings snaps.

“Stress can be the kiss of death or the spice of life.” The platinum strike is too much, like a hidden time bomb, it could explode into sinister effects.

Stress releases hormones to raise breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Reserves of blood cells and glucose flood into the bloodstream. This cascade of reactions prepares us to deal with the stressor, but it remains unseen, or other suffering parties are demonised.

Chronic stress is a killer. Everyone in the platinum belt is perpetually revved up and increasingly desperate.

The National Institutes of Health in the USA advised that people who are stressed to;
• eating a balanced and regular diet
• get enough sleep
• exercise
• limit caffeine and alcohol
• avoid nicotine and street drugs.

We need more comprehensive responses. I disagree with Frantz Fanon that peasants alone are revolutionary. He opines that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The starving miners have now mortgaged their health with the view of earning a living wage, but HIV and some other diseases are irreversible. Workers have their health and safety to lose, and only a few coins to gain.

Gary Allen Sledge once warned that: “It is difficult to know what counts in the world. Most of us count, honour and money… at mid-life, I am beginning to see that the things that really matter take place not in the boardrooms, but in the kitchens of the world.”

Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) of South Africa and former Sheq consultant. He writes in his private capacity.

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Sheqafrica.com is Africa's largest independent SHEQ Magazine, hosting over 2 000 articles and news items since 2007. Sheqafrica.com is owned by the Cygma Group, a global provider of risk management and compliance solutions. Sheqafrica.com is registered as a digital publication with the ISSN.

6 Comments on "The mining strike has many health and safety consequences"

  1. Tendayi Matsai | 27 May 2014 at 06:46 |

    Good article on the mining crisis. This is going to affect all South Africans one way or another

  2. Phumzile Mmakola | 27 May 2014 at 08:47 |

    This a deep article, touching on what lies beneath and not the obvious. I think after such a long strike we need to really look away from the instant gratification to what really matters.

  3. Sindiswa Dyosi | 27 May 2014 at 12:31 |

    Health and safety in our daily living! Thank you Mr Mathebula for an insightful and mind toggling article.

  4. Stanley Khosa | 30 May 2014 at 08:29 |

    What I know for sure and agree with some assertions that : ” there is no smoke without fire”. This mine strike definitely did not just existed with no cause. We must as reponsible citizens of this Republic of South Africa be sober and establish the root cause. When knowledge unfolds the realities, the society becomes more aware and react. The problem is complicated in negotiation table where skills of emotional inteligence is required most.

    I hope the current Minister with his legal background knowledge and activism experience, will uncover the truth about this strike.

  5. A great insightful article. My concern revolves around the need for chronic medication for the striking workers. Has this medical support been available during the past five months. I guess not. I am hoping that the internal damages done may be recoverable. I propose that the DOH looks into this as a matter of urgency and play a special role is assessing and addressing these special needs with the striking miners concerned. Hoping the situation will normalise as soon as possible. We are all hurting as well.

  6. Rina Kotze | 17 July 2014 at 05:32 |

    Great article!!!
    As a Safety Officer myself, I can only imagine the problems coming out of this safety wise.
    On the one hand you will have to be sensitive to the situation, but safety must be the number one priority in the mining environment and that can cause conflict.
    Effective management of the situation is of utmost importance.

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