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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The focus is threefold:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 2012 and 2013, the following class applications were instituted:
The applicants in the class application are applying for the certification of two classes:
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.
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 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:
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 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.