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Mines should prioritise health, safety

WE ARE deeply concerned about the incident that happened yesterday when over 200 pupils at Nchanga Trust Secondary School and 43 miners at Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) in Chingola were admitted to hospital after being choked by a cocktail of unknown gases emitted from an acid plant at Nchanga Mine.
According to reports from the scene, the mine plant was on Thursday around 19:00 hours shut down temporarily following power disruption.
However, when the acid plant was switched on after power was restored around 02:00 hours, there was an emission of gases which chocked miners who were on duty.
Pupils at Nchanga Trust Secondary School, who reported for lessons around 06:00 hours yesterday, including Grade 12 pupils who were scheduled to write their final examinations, were also choked and evacuated to the hospital.
Information on the ground is that after inhaling the gases, some of the pupils started vomiting while others felt dizzy and collapsed at the school before they were quickly rushed to the hospital.
Due to congestion, 53 miners who had suffocated in the night were evacuated to Konkola Mine Hospital in Chililabombwe.
Whereas it is comforting that the Grade 12 pupils were treated and discharged and allowed to sit for the examinations, which started two hours later, it is worth noting that the traumatic experience they went through could affect their performance in the examinations.
While we are also happy that there was no loss of life and the affected pupils and miners are in a stable condition, the incident raises serious concerns about occupational health and safety at the mines.
The situation that occurred in Chingola raises questions of safety and health for workers and communities around mine.
According to KCM corporate affairs manager Eugene Chungu, the company has instituted investigations into the matter to identify the gas which was emitted when the acid plant was re-started.
Mr Chungu said when the acid plant is re-starting, a number of gases are emitted and that currently, the mine management does not know which gas choked the miners and pupils.
“The gases that are normally emitted into the environment are sulphur dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and others. So we have no idea which gas suffocated the miners and pupils. This is what we are trying to establish,” he said.
Whatever the case, we expect mining companies to understand the environmental and public health risks posed by their operations.
They are therefore expected to take precautions to safeguard lives of not only workers but also communities around them.
It is a known fact that mining activities come with various safety and health risks for which drastic measures must be put in place to prevent any possible accidents, diseases or environmental vulnerabilities.
It is only two years ago when the country was dealing with water contamination by KCM. It was discovered that the mining giant had been emitting sulphur dioxide and cadmium, which were 10.3 times and 13.41 times above statutory limits, respectively.
Because of the highly sensitive nature of their activities, mining companies cannot afford to be casual about environmental and public health regulations.
We expect mining companies to take health and safety regulations and precautions provided by the Zambia Environmental Management Agency and other such bodies seriously.
Last year, Workers Compensation Fund Control Board (WCFCB) and the International Social Security Association (ISSA), in conjunction with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, launched Vision Zero, a global campaign to respond to the rising number of occupational accidents and diseases.
The campaign encourages and supports businesses to embrace a prevention culture where occupational health and safety hazards are concerned.
The campaign has seven golden rules which companies are expected to follow to enhance occupational safety and health in and around their work environments.
For instance, companies are expected to identify hazards and take precaution.
In the same vein, we expected the people responsible for re-starting the acid plant to understand the hazards associated with the process.
The other rule is that companies are expected to invest in capacity building. It is therefore assumed that the people handling complex and delicate processes at mining companies are qualified to do so.
It is worrying that a health hazard of that magnitude could happen without anyone foreseeing it.
It is hoped that thorough investigations will be conducted to establish what really transpired at Nchanga Mine to avoid any such re-occurrence.
As the affected pupils go back to school and miners to their work station, it is important to make sure that the premises are safe for them to operate from.
Needless to say lessons must be drawn that mining companies cannot afford to leave any stone unturned in ensuring environmental and occupational health and safety.