The link between recklessness inside & outside of mines

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018
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This article was first published on LinkedIn on 29 February 2016:

I read with interest the article published on Friday, 26th February 2016, by, referring to the Implats CEO, Terance Goodlace’s, take on the link between safety in South African mines and the risk-taking psyche of the average South African.  He further links it to a “growing social disobedience” which, according to him had “weakened our collective social values and our safety compliance system”.   While I agree with Mr Goodlace that South Africans are risk takers, who as a nation frequently puts safety on the back burner or even more frequently, remove it completely off the stove, I do not agree that this phenomenon is a recent event. 

I am reminded of the Head of Safety and Sustainable Development at the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, Dr Sizwe Phakathi’s, 2012 paper that deals with the culture of planisa in mines, titled:   “Getting on and getting by underground. Gold miners’ informal working practice of making a plan (planisa)”

Although Dr Phakathi’s paper deals only with gold mines, I consider it to be the norm in most mines, irrespective of the product mined.  Planisa is a Fanakalo word, which refers to “making a plan”, particularly when deep down in the mine.  Fanakalo is (was?) the lingua franca based on English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu, used in South Africa, particularly in the mines.  (I wonder if it still is the lingua franca in the mines because in recent years some South African mining companies have banned the use of Fanakalo on site.)  Planisa implores minors to tackle the day-to-day problems underground with skills and ingenuity to unblock the bottlenecks that prevent production targets from being reached.  According to Dr Phakathi, and as it is also clearly portrayed in Greg Marinovich’s “Murder at Small Koppie.  The real story of the Marikana Massacre”, workers learn (and are also required to do so for their own survival) to “read” and anticipate changing conditions in the immediate geological environment in order to work safely while at the same time responding to production demands.  The conditions underground, plus whatever organisational constraints and inefficiencies that might exist, force the underground workers to improvise and planisain order to meet production targets.

I quote directly from Dr Phakathi’s paper in which he states (and he in turn refers to studies as old as 1954):  “In the context of underground mining operations, especially in the area of worker safety, complying with formal rules and regulations is not always adequate. The ability of miners to detect and predict dangers on the basis of their beliefs, normative prescriptions and tacit knowledge, highlights not only the limitations but also the existence of official safety rules side-by-side with unofficial safety rules in the underground mining workplace”.   Dr Phakathi further lists a number of factors that compel miners to planisa, which include mechanical breakdowns, production pressure, production bonuses and the imposition of standards.  By making a plan, miners insure that production delays are avoided, production bonuses can be earned, and if there isn’t an accident (fatal or otherwise), they earn the praise of their shift-bosses and mine captains. 

Although I agree with Mr Goodlace’s comment about the recklessness that pervades South African society, I would say it is nothing new, and has been encouraged for many decades, also in mines.  In order to really address safety in mines, we would need to take everything into account, most of all entrenched human behaviour, which will not disappear with the implementation of standards, whether safety or any other, not while the rest of the conditions in the mines remain the same.  And until the rest of the conditions change, workers will continue to planisa and fatal accidents will continue to happen.

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