Deaths are down but the number of injuries on mines last year rose 12% to 3,200. Picture:MARIANNE PRETORIUS

THE number of mining jobs at risk has climbed to 32,000 from a previous estimate of 23,000, Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane says.

He was speaking at a media briefing on Thursday in which the department’s mine health and safety division reported that the number of people killed on South African mines fell to a record low of 77 last year from 84 in 2014, led by improvements in gold and coal mines.

Mine deaths in SA have fallen almost every year since 1993, when they were among the highest in the world, at 615. There has been a combined effort by the government, unions and companies to improve safety on mines, with an ultimate target of zero deaths.

The figures are distorted by retrenchments on South African mines, and by comparisons with 2014, when there was a five-month strike on platinum mines around Rustenburg. Mine deaths are best illustrated as a percentage of million man-hours worked, but the hours worked figures are not yet available for last year.

In 2014, the percentage was 0.09%, unchanged from 2013.

The number of injuries on mines last year rose 12% to 3,200. Platinum mines recorded a significant deterioration with a 67% increase, but in other commodities, injury statistics had improved.

The incidence of certain diseases, such as silicosis, silico-tuberculosis and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis decreased, although there was a 50% rise in the number of asbestosis cases. While SA’s last asbestos mines were decommissioned 20 years ago, the disease took years to manifest and was now being picked up in former asbestos mine workers, Mr Zwane said.

The minister, mining companies and some trade unions welcomed the improvement in fatalities. Mr Zwane said he believed the trends were moving in the right direction towards the goal of zero harm.

Progress had been made by the larger mines, which are Chamber of Mines members, and account for about 54% of deaths. Several mining companies including De Beers, Exxaro, Sasol, Northam Platinum, South32, Aquarius Platinum SA, Foskor and Petra Diamonds had no fatalities last year.

Association of Mineworkers and Construction (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa said these were not just numbers, but were lives lost and widows left destitute. He said he had yet to see mining company managers attend funerals or visit the widows, or mining CEOs prosecuted for deaths on their companies’ mines.

Mr Mathunjwa questioned the effectiveness of section 54 stoppages under the Mine Health and Safety Act that are used by the department to halt mining operations for an investigation after a health or safety transgression.

Mining companies have complained that these stoppages are sometimes imposed for trivial reasons or extortion and, according to a Chamber of Mines document leaked last year, they had cost the industry about R13.6bn in lost revenue since 2012. Mr Mathunjwa said section 54 stoppages were too light a punishment as companies were easily able to make up lost production. Mr Zwane said the department would continue to implement section 54 stoppages in accordance with the law.