THE Department of Health intends launching a medical inspectorate for mines, in the hope of improving health and safety for the half a million people working in the sector, it emerged in Parliament yesterday.
The development, part of a broad push by the department to reform SA’s weak occupational health system, comes as SA’s leading gold mining companies face increasing scrutiny over their health and safety record.
Thousands of former miners are seeking damages for lung diseases they claim are due to mines’ negligence, after a landmark Constitutional Court judgment last year that mineworkers who had claimed compensation from the government for lung diseases contracted at work could also sue their former employers.
Although most workers’ claims for compensation for work-related injury and disease are processed by the Department of Labour, the health department is responsible for paying compensation to miners who contract lung diseases such as tuberculosis and silicosis at work. It also sets policies that determine the extent to which healthcare professionals trained to diagnose and treat occupational diseases are appointed to clinics and hospitals.
"The bottom line is very little is being done (to protect workers). Don’t believe everything you read in companies’ sustainability reports," said Barry Kistnasamy, newly appointed head of the Compensation Commission for Occupational Diseases (CCOD). The 62 mines visited by his colleagues for a report on HIV and tuberculosis submitted to the Department of Mineral Resources "left a lot to be desired", he said.
Dr Kistnasamy has taken over the reins from former commissioner Pumla Mzizi, who health director-general Precious Matso-so said quit after she instituted a review of her performance. The CCOD has battled for years with claims backlogs, and struggled to fill vacant posts.
"It’s quite clear there has been mismanagement (of the CCOD)," Ms Matsoso told Parliament’s portfolio committee on health.
Ms Mzizi was hauled over the coals by the committee in May after it became apparent that she had made scant progress in tackling the problems facing the CCOD in the year since her previous presentation to them.
She compounded MPs’ irritation by presenting documents that were virtually identical to those tabled the year before. It typically took between three and five years to settle a miner’s claim, she said at the time.
Dr Kistnasamy remains executive director of the National Institutes of Occupational Health. The occupational health system needed reform to ensure workers were adequately protected, he said. "There is no surveillance of injuries and diseases. If we don’t measure (them), we can’t manage them," he said.
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