South Africa’s platinum and gold mining companies are being told to cut their workforces and introduce more mechanisation – but this is not as easy as it sounds
LONDON (MINEWEB) – With the focus over the past couple of months first on South Africa’s platinum mines, and subsequently its gold mines as labour problems have appeared to intensify we find the international mining community, for the most part, totally baffled by the sizes of the huge labour workforces working at some of these properties.
As an example – although this is going back a bit – after working on a South African gold mine where perhaps you would find a gang of 20-30 miners working on a single 3m x 3m development tunnel, the writer went to work on a Canadian underground mine where a similar sized development drive would be staffed by a gang of just two people.
The part answer to this, of course, was mechanisation, whereby the drilling itself would be undertaken by an early stage single boom drill jumbo rather than by four or five rock drill operators plus their attendants, working off and under a drill platform in the South African case.
But it went far further than this and much would be down to the exemplary clean-up and track laying standards demanded in South Africa’s case – and while these were deemed totally necessary in the South African context, with study crews measuring the distance between each rail track tie, and penalising the miner overseer if these were as much as a centimetre or two out of place, in Canada the regime was far less strict. If it worked it was OK.
The high standards in South Africa could be seen all across the mine. Main haulageways were painted white up to the red grade lines, you could almost eat off the floor at the shaft stations – OK that’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it makes the point.
Now those days are indeed gone even at the South African mines. Development headings are now largely trackless with drilling with drill jumbos, loading with LHDs, and white paint consumption will have died, although the working gangs are still far larger than those of their Canadian counterparts. Why? In South Africa labour is relatively plentiful and for years has been cheap (although the mining companies will tell you labour is one of the most expensive parts of their costs – which isn’t surprising if you employ 20,000 people on your mine!).
But the biggest problem in this particular case will have been paring down numbers from what would have been seen as the acceptable norm for work in a development heading involving not only drilling, blasting and mucking out, but also hanging water and compressed air lines, electrical cables and ventilation ducting etc. In Canada the miners did it all. In South Africa there was a hierarchical work gang social and cultural structure to take into account.
However, development drives are the easy part of the mechanisation process. It is the narrow reef mining necessary at many of the platinum and gold mines which really creates mechanisation difficulties and so far virtually none of the mines have been able to control this problem. Again, for example in the days, many years ago when I was a shift boss at Rustenburg Platinum Mines (then run by JCI) the miners I had under my supervision were mining at a stoping width of around 28 inches – around 70 cm. – even narrower in some cases – as the Merensky reef being mined was itself only a matter of centimetres wide and the mine wanted as little dilution as possible. With the reef dipping at a consistent 90 and faces perhaps 30 m in length, the rock drill operators would drill lying on their backs with their feet applying the pressure to push the drill forward.
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