Court allows civil mining occupational health claims

Former miners suffering from silicosis and TB are legally allowed to take class action in occupational health claims for damages against gold mines from 2016.

The High Court ruled in May 2016 that about 500 000 miners who contracted lung diseases such as silicosis and tuberculosis, may sue for damages, despite the protection of employers by the statutory compensation funds.

Each mining company would be separately held liable for health damages in civil suits, and for deaths due to occupational diseases. The affected employers include Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Sibanye Gold and African Rainbow Minerals (ARM). Anglo and ARM no longer operate gold mines, but have been named in claims.

The mines have formed the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) group to deal with the expected claims (as reported on Sheqafrica.com in March 2016).

OLD said in a media release that gold companies were studying the judgment. Each employer could decide whether to appeal the court’s decision.

“The finding does not represent a view on the merits of the cases brought by claimants,” said the statement.

The finding allows occupational health claims via class actions, but does not anticipate the success of civil claims.

The May ruling follows a $30-m silicosis settlement with 4400 miners in March, against Anglo American and AngloGold, based on negligence of some of the employers’ health and safety duties.

Some claims date back decades. Earlier civil claim victories by former asbestos miners, and recently by former Anglo miners (see other reports on Sheqafrica.com), set the stage for class actions by all gold miners.

Peter Bailey, head of health and safety at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), welcomed the ruling.

Compensation fund mechanisms are inadequate

High Court Judge Phineas Mojapelo said from 17 000 to 500 000 miners could be involved.

He said class action is the only realistic option through which most mine workers could assert their claims effectively against the mining companies. The ruling was unanimous by three judges.

Gold mining companies could be held liable or responsible for unlawful emissions and exposure of workers to health stressors.

A joint paper by researchers at University of the Witswatersrand, and University College London, estimates 288 000 cases of compensable silicosis in South Africa, with a compensation liability of at least R10-b, reported Reuters.

Silicosis makes sufferers highly susceptible to tuberculosis (TB). Judge Mojapelo said workers who had died of the diseases could be included in the suits, with damages paid to family members.

The affected gold miners are in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland.

Sources; Reuters. OLD. NUM. Sheqafrica.com.

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Edmond Furter

Editor at Sheqafrica.com
Edmond Furter is the editor of Sheqafrica.com. He is a freelance technical journalist, and has won six journalism awards. He specialises in industrial, business, and cultural content in web, journal, and book formats.