Silicosis settlement marks end of a long road – LRC

Janet Love says mining industry still needs to do much more to ensure prevention of diseases like silicosis

Silicosis Class-Action Settlement Press Conference

3 May 2018

During 2003, some 15 years ago, after we were approached by ex-goldminers, the Legal Resources Centre agreed to represent a group of miners who had worked in the Free State’s President Steyn Gold Mine. Our clients hailed from the Free State, Lesotho and remote areas in the Eastern Cape. They had contracted silicosis and some had consequently also contracted tuberculosis (TB).

The litigation was delayed for over 6 years, primarily as a result of procedural objections raised by the mining company. Literally hundreds of thousands of pages of documents were disclosed in the course of the drawn-out discovery process. These documents had to be analysed, catalogued and run past various experts in order to build the evidence that demonstrated company liability.

The LRC instituted proceedings on behalf of this initial group of clients in the South Gauteng High Court (the Blom case) against Anglo American South Africa, the mine responsible at the President Steyn Gold Mine, in terms of service contracts, to give technical advice to the mine on various matters, including health and safety and technical issues.

During the period that our clients were employed at the mine, Anglo American South Africa, in its capacity as technical adviser, wrongfully advised the mine in relation to silica dust and silicosis. The dust level in the mines exceeded levels that posed a foreseeable risk of silicosis. Anglo American should have known that the conditions to which the miners were exposed were below the required standard.

The Blom silicosis case also illustrated the vestiges of apartheid that still linger in our country. The documents the LRC obtained also revealed that the treatment received by black miners during apartheid was inadequate in comparison to that received by white miners. In medical examinations, black miners underwent mini x-ray tests that were difficult to read and did not effectively detect silicosis. White miners, on the other hand, had full-size x-ray tests. Black miners also did the dustiest jobs and, unlike white miners, they did not have access to on-site showers or changing rooms in which to remove the dust from their bodies.

The LRC took on these Blom test cases (which were finally settled in 2011) with the unflagging support of Legal Aid SA in order to establish the legal principles that underscore the liability of mining companies towards individuals who contracted silicosis as a result of their employment at gold mines. Legal Aid SA funded the Blom case to positively affect the lives of a much larger number of indigent miners whose health has been compromised by exposure to mine dust and their families. The evidence gathered during the Blom/President Steyn matter was critical to enable us to pursue this silicosis class action.

So today marks an important step: enabling the LRC to increase the impact of our work by building on the relief obtained for an initial group of people in a manner that can provide a basis for thousands of others to obtain compensation. In all this time, the courage and determination of our clients and their families has been truly humbling. It is these people who not only shouldered the burdens of hard labour on our mines upon which much of our economy was built, but it is these miners and their families who have been willing to go the distance to secure some measure of general accountability.

This settlement marks the end of a long road for the LRC, starting in 2003 which led to the Blom/President Steyn Mine silicosis litigation. The Blom/President Steyn Mine matter was the first case on silicosis in South Africa. It served as a test case to establish the liability of Anglo American SA as a parent company; it laid the foundation for Mbuyisa Neale and Leigh Day to negotiate the establishment of the Q(h)ubeka Trust in March 2016; and it provided the primary evidentiary basis to launch the class action.

That mediation and negotiation have advanced matters to this extent, is a great relief. However, today the LRC wishes to raise our concern that the mining industry, as a whole, still needs to do much more to ensure that sufficient attention is given to preventing diseases like silicosis. There is clear evidence of failures in the management of toxic waste and air quality by many mining companies. More needs to be done today to prevent the destruction of lives – both of workers in the mines and those living in the surrounding communities - that will be the inevitable result of this environmental mismanagement and breaches of the law.

The industry needs to provide miners with a healthy work environment, one which does not permanently compromise their health because of exposure to harmful dust and chemicals. Once miners retire and return to their communities, the industry needs to still have an interest in their well-being. Legislators and government must act now to ensure that this is what happens.

Thank you.

Issued by Janet Love, National Director, LRC, 3 May 2018