How safe are Zambian copper mines?

MINE accidents have remained a frequent occurrence in Zambia’s mining sector with the latest being the underground tragedy that claimed four lives at Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) in Kitwe last Sunday.
The four miners, whose bodies are yet to be retrieved by a rescue team, met their fate on Sunday around 23:00 hours after being buried alive when a rock fell on them at South Ore Body Shaft.
They have been identified as Emmanuel Kyongola of J59 Chamboli, Honest Mushota of 74 Geddes Street, Nkana East, Arnold Mambwe of H2-63 Chamboli and Abel Munthali of 893 Ndeke township.
Such accidents have left many Zambians with more questions than answers as to whether mine owners in this key sector of the country’s economy take issues of safety and health standards of their employees, contractors and the community seriously.
Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services and Roan Member of Parliament Chishimba Kambwili, who has lost a nephew, Honest Mushota in the same accident, is like the relatives of the other three dead miners demanding to know the cause of the accident.
“I lost a nephew in that mine accident who happens to be the son of my sister. As a family, we would like to know what transpired,” Mr Kambwili, who is also chief government spokesperson, said.
Knowing what happened at MCM’s SOB shaft on that day that saw the lives of four miners lost, is not asking for too much, as relatives of the deceased and the nation at large deserve to know the truth to avoid such incidents in future.
The sad part of it is the uncertainty surrounding the on-going rescue operations, which Mine Safety Department director Gideon Ndalama says may take more days to successfully retrieve the four bodies which are still trapped in the bowels of the earth.
“It is a huge operation,” MCM corporate affairs manager Cephas Sinyangwe said on the nature of the exercise at hand as bereaved families anxiously wait to see the remains of their loved ones.
This mine accident and many other similar ones that have continued happening at various mining companies bring to the fore the safety of Zambian mineworkers and the effectiveness of the country’s mine safety laws.
Some people have been blaming mine accidents on negligence on the part of mine owners to invest in safety and adhere to safety and health standards while others blame it on the absence of a national safety policy and a safety enforcement body to ensure the lives of mineworkers are safeguarded.
Not too long ago, at least 50 workers died while several others were injured in a blast at the Chinese-owned BGRIMM Explosives factory in Chambishi on the Copperbelt while another miner at MCM’s Mufulira Mine, Webby Chichalwa, died after an dynamite exploded on him, blowing off his head in an underground mine accident.
David Nyumbula, another miner in Solwezi, also died on the spot after a heap of copper concentrates collapsed on him at Kansanshi Mine as miners were loading the commodity on a frontend loader using shovels.
Another miner, Gibson Siachivwenya, died in an underground accident at Collum Coal Mine in Sinazongwe while three others were injured when their supervisor allegedly ordered them to go and work in the tunnel where blasting had just been done and allegedly threatened them that he would deduct their working hours if they did not comply.
These are few of the many mine accidents the country has recorded in the mining sector in recent years, which raises serious concerns on the safety of Zambians working in the mines.
Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) general secretary Joseph Chewe said in Kitwe the absence of a law to punish erring mining companies for not adhering to safety and health standards has contributed to the accidents.
Mr Chewe said some mine accidents could have been avoided had mining houses invested in the safety of their employees, contractors and the community.
He urged investors in the mining sector to invest in the safety and health of their employees to avoid unnecessary loss of lives through mine accidents.
“It is always sad to lose lives in mine accidents. Some mine accidents could have been avoided had mining companies maintained high levels of safety and health standards. As MUZ, it is our desire to see mining houses that do not adhere to safety and health standards punished,” Mr Chewe said.
Government’s delays in the domestication into national laws the Safety and Health in Mines Convention number C117 of 1995, which was ratified in 1999, which provides for the punishment of erring mining companies has also been cited by miners and union officials as a factor perpetuating negligence among mine owners.
Kitwe-based mine expert Jonathan Chibale said there is need for Government to constitute a safety board to oversee the work of the Mines Safety Department, which he said lacks capacity to carry out necessary inspections.
“The safety board should be able to hire and fire mine inspectors that fail to do their work. Because of the weakness in the law, mine owners are not compelled to invest in the safety of mineworkers due to the absence of penalties on the erring companies.
“Formulation of the national safety policy will give guidelines to all investors in the mining industry and will compel mining houses to adopt a uniform safety policy,” Mr Chibale said.
He called for the revision of mining and explosives regulations to ensure the duty of ensuring safety of workers solely rests on the shoulders of the employers.
Deputy Minister of Mines, Energy and Water Development Richard Musukwa, who delivered a message of condolences to the bereaved families on behalf of President Lungu, has urged mining companies to put in place high levels of safety and health standards in their respective open and underground operations.
“As Government, we are working with Mopani Copper Mines to ensure that the bodies of the miners are retrieved. The team constituted to carry out the operation is working round the clock to ensure that the four bodies are retrieved,” Mr Musukwa said.
He said preliminary investigations into the accident in Kitwe revealed that a stope collapsed and the four miners fell into the open pit underground.
And Mr Sinyangwe said Mopani attaches great importance to health and the safety of its employees despite the Kitwe accident.
“Since inception in 2000, we have implemented a number of safety initiatives that have contributed to the reduction in lost time injury frequency rate from 9.3 in 2000 to 0.97 up to second quarter of 2015.
“Mopani has implemented the safe mining strategy which is aimed at enhancing safety performance across all operations with an ultimate goal of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries as part of the company’s long-term business strategy,” Mr Sinyang at the company’s SOB shaft in Kitwe was one of the isolated incidents that was last experienced 10 years ago.
“This accident truly is a tragedy as we had made great strides in delivering and living our safety message. Our last accident of such magnitude was over 10 years ago. We wish to express our heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the deceased employees.
“Mopani will continue to render full support to the families of the deceased during this difficult time, and we wish them God’s comfort and guidance,” Mr Sinyangwe said.
Mine and Safety Department director Gideon Ndalama said Zambian mines are safe despite the fatalities the nation has witnessed over the years and that his department will step up monitoring the state of all mines in the country.

Facebook Feed