Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Too Late for Many

When Oupa Sonopi started working in the mine at the age of 25, he was never informed of the high risk of contracting tuberculosis (TB). "Although we would hear about colleagues in the mines being treated for TB, I was not aware that the environment we worked under could be a huge contributor to me getting TB. We were not informed when we were recruited," he says.
According to Sonopi, most of his colleagues who work at the gold mines in Carletonville, a small gold-mining town 86 kilometres west of Johannesburg, suffer from airborne diseases such as silicosis, pulmonary TB and other lung infections such as chronic obstructive airways disease and lung cancer. 

Data from the Department of Health indicates that about half-a-million mineworkers in South Africa and about two million former mineworkers, spread across Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, are at a high risk of contracting TB, just like Sonopi. They are vulnerable to lung disease because of their exposure to multiple risk factors, including their overcrowded living settlements, which usually increases the risk of infection with airborne diseases. The high rates of HIV infection as well as their exposure to silica dust in the deep mine shafts - which are often poorly ventilated - also increase the risks.

Project Ku-Riha (Ku-Riha, a Xitsonga word for compensation), is being implemented by the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases and the Compensation Commission for Occupational Diseases (CCOD) of the Department of Health. According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi,  "The department has identified 103 000 active and ex-miners with compensable claims for the pneumoconiosis which includes silicosis asbestosis, TB, chronic obstructive airways disease, progressive systematic sclerosis and lung cancer among others." Authorities have set aside R1.5-billion that will go towards compensation. Migrant workers from other countries who have worked in South African mines and who account for around a third of the South African mining work force are also eligible to apply for the fund. The minister said thousands of people had died without ever receiving or even being aware of the country's Benefit Medical Examination and the autopsies their families were entitled to under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act of 1973. However, the CCOD has such a huge backlog of claims from mine workers with lung disease that it will take years to process. 200 000 claims had been checked while about 500 000 were yet to be touched. A preliminary analysis of the claims held by the CCOD showed that more than half (56%) were for TB and 17% for silicosis.

Motsoaledi acknowledged that compensation could never be enough to address the difficulties that the affected miners faced. "Compensation will never be enough. We need to change the laws to ensure that our miners are protected," he said.

The fund derives its income from levies paid by mines themselves. Claims are assessed by the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases' certification committee, which determines whether or not they qualify for pay-outs, which usually range from R3 000 to R100 000. Other work-related injuries and diseases, such as loss of limb or finger, are dealt with by the Department of Labour.

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