Logo [logo]

FAQs

The disease and context

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is an occupational lung disease (OLD) caused by the inhalation of free respirable crystalline silica dust, which is present in many industries, including mining and quarrying, where quartz concentrations are high – as is the case in many deep-level gold mines. If inhaled, crystalline silica dust may cause a fibrotic reaction (scarring) in the lung, which results in the restriction of lung elasticity. Silicosis predisposes a person to the development of pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). The chance of this is increased when an employee is immuno-compromised – for example, if he or she is HIV-positive. Silicosis and TB in silica-exposed employees are considered to be compensable diseases in terms of the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA).

What are its symptoms? How does it develop? Is it always fatal?

Silicosis presents in a number of ways. Doctors differentiate between acute silicosis, chronic silicosis and accelerated silicosis.

The majority of cases fall into the category of chronic silicosis, which manifests only after 10 to 30 years of cumulative exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust. Once contracted, the condition usually continues to progress gradually, even after exposure to silica dust has stopped.

Affected people tend to die with, rather than from, silicosis. But silicosis increases the risk of contracting other infectious respiratory diseases, most commonly pulmonary TB which, if not diagnosed early or if left untreated, can be seriously disabling and even fatal.

Is there a relationship between HIV and silicosis?

There is no known direct link between HIV and silicosis. An indirect link exists because both HIV and silicosis pose an increased risk of contracting TB. People with silicosis are more likely to develop pulmonary TB. Both HIV and TB are major public health issues in South Africa.

Undiagnosed and/or untreated respiratory disease carries a far greater risk of future lung impairment so it is imperative that diseases such as pulmonary TB and HIV, are diagnosed and properly treated at an early stage. The companies provide comprehensive healthcare services to employees, including regular screening for and treatment of TB and HIV/Aids, and education around prevention.

Do all gold mines have silica?

Yes. However the levels of crystalline silica in the ore vary from one mine to another. Silicosis is generally not an issue in open pit mines, which are mostly mechanised and where the working environments are not confined. The vast majority of the world's gold mines outside South Africa are open pit operations. South African gold mines are, in contrast, almost all underground hard rock mines.

How extensive is silicosis on our mines, and among former mineworkers?

There are several estimates in the public domain. Without wishing to understate the serious human impact of silicosis in South Africa, there is a view that these estimates overstated the numbers of silicosis sufferers as they tend to be based on surveys that concentrate on groups of former mineworkers in the most affected occupations and with many years of service. No one can be certain of the actual numbers, though, and for this reason we don't believe there is value in speculating.

Our goal is for every employee to return home each day without having suffered any ill effects from their work every day of their lives. This was the reasoning behind the 2003 and the 2014 Mine Health and Safety Summit milestones, and all our commitments. It is also the reasoning behind the work we have done to eliminate accidents at work. While every work-related accident or occupational illness is one too many, and we know we have a long way to go, we are gratified at the progress made thanks to co-operation between regulators, our employees and their organisations and ourselves.

 

Prevention

What do South African mines do about dust management? How successful have they been? And why are people still contracting silicosis?

The focus is threefold:

  1. Prevention: Our mines manage respirable crystalline silica at source by means of wet drilling and other engineering controls such as ventilation, dust allaying, filtration at tipping points and centralised blasting to prevent peak exposures. Employees are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE). We also constantly improve our standard of dust monitoring, sampling frequencies and dust analysis methods and this has resulted in the incidence of silicosis (the number of new cases in a study population in a given period) declining over time. This decline is illustrated by the increasing period of exposure before diagnosis.
  2. Detection and treatment: This includes regular compulsory medical assessments for early detection of the disease and, where detected and possible, transferring people into work areas with less exposure. The vast majority of silicosis cases only manifest after 10 to 30 years of cumulative dust exposure. This means that current diagnoses are not a reflection of current dust management effectiveness.
  3. Compensation is the third leg of our work and is a major focus of the operations of the Working Group.

It's important to note that, given the length of time it takes to develop silicosis, the dust management procedures now in place are only likely to show results (fewer cases of silicosis) in about 20 years' time.

Are workers supplied with dust masks or respirators?

Respiratory masks are made available to employees to reduce exposure to inhaled pollutants. It is mandatory for employees to make use of PPE where working conditions require it.

 

Treatment

ODMWA, which currently governs compensation of OLD in the South African mining industry, recognises two degrees of silicosis, based on the results of a chest X-ray and also on the extent of functional lung impairment.

Having silicosis increases the risk of contracting certain diseases, in particular pulmonary TB. It is imperative that such diseases are diagnosed and treated properly at an early stage.

Does silicosis affect certain job categories of employees?

Employees working in confined, dusty areas where respirable crystalline silica dust is present are more likely to be affected, although precautions are taken to control dust exposure to keep it within occupational exposure limits set by regulatory agencies.

What is the relationship between TB and silicosis, and what is being done about this?

See What is silicosis? Our company medical services offer comprehensive TB control programmes with preventive, diagnostic and treatment services, and have also participated in some TB research studies in the gold mining sector.

 

Compensation

What compensation do silicosis sufferers receive in terms of ODMWA?

Current compensation in terms of ODMWA is a lump sum payment of R105 000 for 2nd degree silicosis and R47 160 for 1st degree silicosis. The combination of silicosis and TB is classified as 2nd degree.

Mining companies have known about the inefficiency within the MBOD for years – why has nothing been done about this in the past?

The operations of the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases (MBOD) are a government function although its funds (for distribution to eligible claimants) are sourced from regular employer contributions. Nonetheless, the mining industry's efforts to assist, including participation in the corporate governance structures of the MBOD, date back to at least the early 1990s.

More recently, in 2004, our companies initiated a dialogue, with the Department of Health and organised labour, aimed at improving access to compensation for former mineworkers. Part of that Former Mineworker Project, which included a pilot programme being rolled out to assist rural hospitals to develop the capacity to examine former mineworkers and assist them with compensation applications, also involved offering assistance to the MBOD.

In addition, the Chamber of Mines and gold mining companies have provided financial assistance to the MBOD/Compensation Commission for Occupational Diseases (CCOD) to set up 'one stop' occupational health services for former mineworkers in Mthatha, Carletonville and Kuruman. The companies involved in the OLD initiative also partnered with the MBOD to launch Project Ku-Riha.

Why did the companies oppose improvements to ODMWA benefits over the past 20 years?

We have actively lobbied for improvements over the years. The industry is working with government and other stakeholders on covering new employees through COIDA, which pays more compensation.

Do you know where these silicosis sufferers are? Have any attempts been made to trace them? And is any support provided to former employees who now have silicosis?

The Former Mineworkers Project pilots were a positive step in identifying the work that needs to be done. The Department of Health's initiative to establish one-stop occupational health centres, in which the companies are co-operating, is another example. We are sure there will be further progress emerging from this initiative. And there are outreach programmes referred to at Beyond the mine gate.

In addition, our companies' occupational health facilities provide free medical benefit examinations and medical care, where required, to any current or former employees presenting themselves.

 

Details of litigation

Background to the class application

In 2012 and 2013, the following class applications were instituted:

  • The Abrahams class application: In August 2012, three separate applications against each of AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and their respective subsidiaries were instituted in the South Gauteng High Court (the 'High Court') by applicants represented by Abrahams Kiewitz who say they represent approximately 6 000 claimants and are supported in these applications by the US law firm, Hausfeld LLP.
  • The Spoor class application: In December 2012, applicants represented by Richard Spoor Attorneys, who say they represent approximately 23 000 claimants and are supported by US law firm Motley Rice, instituted a class certification application in the High Court against 30 mining companies.
  • The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) class application: In March 2013, 13 applicants represented by the LRC instituted a class certification application in the High Court against Anglo American South Africa.
  • In 2013 the Abrahams, Spoor and LRC class applications were consolidated into a single class application against 32 mining companies, including African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony, Sibanye and their respective subsidiaries (the Working Group companies).

The applicants in the class application are applying for the certification of two classes:

  • a silicosis class comprising current and former mineworkers who have contracted silicosis, and the dependants of mineworkers who have died of silicosis; and
  • a tuberculosis class comprising current and former mineworkers who have or had contracted pulmonary TB and the dependants of deceased mineworkers who died of pulmonary TB.

The Working Group companies and other defendant mining companies are all opposing the class application.

It should also be noted that no amount of damages has been specified yet for any of the claimants in the class application.

Status of the class application

The class application was heard in the South Gauteng High Court from 12 to 23 October 2015. On 13 May 2016, the High Court ordered, among others:

  • The certification of two classes of current and former mineworkers and dependants of deceased mineworkers who worked on one or more of the South African gold mines listed in the order:
    • those with silicosis or who died from silicosis; and
    • those with TB or who died from TB.

The defendant mining companies all applied to the High Court for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) and, on 24 June 2016, the High Court ruled that they all:

  • be granted leave to appeal to the SCA the ruling that the common law be developed in relation to transmissibility of general damages since there was a reasonable prospect that the SCA could reach a different conclusion; and
  • be refused leave to appeal their ruling in relation to the certification of a silicosis class and a TB class.

The defendant mining companies all then petitioned the SCA for leave to appeal to the SCA and, on 13 September 2017, the SCA ruled that the defendants be granted leave to appeal the entire order previously issued by the High Court.

The SCA hearing was scheduled for the week of 19 March 2018. In January 2018 the companies and the claimants’ attorneys applied for and were granted a postponement sine die of the matter due to the advanced state of the settlement negotiations.

The High Court judgment

The judgment by the High Court certifying the class action did not deal with the merits of the claims against the companies. The certification judgment only gave the claimants permission to bring their claims as class actions. In any event, the High Court's ruling has been taken on appeal to the SCA.

The Working Group companies believe that the High Court judgment addressed a number of complex and important issues – including a far-reaching amendment of the common law – that had not previously been considered by other courts in South Africa. The High Court itself found that the scope and magnitude of the proposed claims was unprecedented in South Africa and that the class action would address novel and complex issues of fact and law. The companies applied for leave to appeal the judgment because they were of the view that the court's ruling on some of these issues is incorrect and that another court may come to a different decision.

However, we believe that the High Court judgment is flawed and should be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Appeal if litigation is to continue. We are not appealing against the High Court judgment to delay the certification of the class. The precedent set by the High Court leads to very wide, unmanageable classes and would create issues for claimants and respondents in the future.

The Working Group companies are conscious of concerns that the appeal processes will delay the finalisation of the matters. In an attempt to shorten any delay brought about by this process, we requested that the SCA deal with the appeals on an expedited basis.

We are opposing the class action application because we genuinely believe that it is not the best way to address the legacy of OLD. The companies believe that there are better ways of providing compensation and medical care to the former mineworkers affected by OLD, and that this can be achieved without a lengthy and expensive court action. The Working Group member companies remain of the view that achieving a mutually acceptable comprehensive settlement, which is fair to past, present and future employees, and sustainable for the sector, is preferable to protracted litigation.

In addition, the Working Group will continue with its efforts – which have been ongoing for more than three years – to find common ground with stakeholders, including the claimants' legal representatives.