Multiple appointments of mine surveyors a risky business

July 20th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: EE Publishers


The increasing trend in recent years to appoint mine surveyors to positions of responsibility over multiple mines is potentially hazardous for personnel working on those mines and is hastening the demise of the mine surveying profession just as it is most needed.

In terms of the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1996 (MHSA) and its regulations, a person with a prescribed certification or qualification must be appointed to perform the work of a Competent Person in order to be able to be in charge of specified work on a mine – the equivalent of performing unsupervised work.  In our case, the mine surveyor is appointed as competent person in terms of Regulation 17(2) of the Act, which states: “The employer must engage the part-time or full-time services of a competent person to be in charge of surveying, mapping and mine plans at the mine…”

Alex Bals

Alex Bals

Mining companies have had to balance the need to comply with the Act with the cost of compliance.  Until 2004, the Act guarded against any bias towards cost savings by regulating against simultaneous appointments at other mines.  Any exception had to be applied for from the Chief Inspector of Mines, who could grant or deny the request, after the Director: Mine Surveying had adequately assessed matters such as levels of risk, complexity of work, proximity of mines, and a number of other factors, before recommending that permission be granted for multiple appointments, and then under clear conditions and/or for a limited period of time.

For many years the rule of thumb seems to have been that for every legally appointed manager, there should be a legally appointed mine surveyor.  The manager would then be assured that in his or her area of responsibility, a competent person would be looking after the integrity of the plans, checking for hazards introduced by proximity of workings or possible accumulations of water or gas, and directing the workings in a safe manner.  Unfortunately it appears that this ratio has shifted materially, with many appointed mine surveyors now legally appointed over several managers’ areas of responsibility.

A review of some numbers will substantiate this.  The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) annually publishes a list of operating mines in South Africa, and the latest numbers for 2014 indicate that there are 1713 mines and works registered with the DMR.  But not all mines need supervision by a full-time mine surveyor, so for the sake of this review we can reduce the number by excluding works, surface operations, quarries, sea operations, and then several of the commodities which are generally less hazardous to mine, or need no blasting to mine, such as sand, clay, kaolin and several others.  These could be serviced at a less onerous frequency, by a surveyor appointed on a part-time basis. That still leaves us with 839 mines, of which 170 have underground workings.

The Institute of Mine Surveyors of South Africa (IMSSA) reports that a total of 235 individuals are currently registered as corporate members who are certificated mine surveyors.  Of these, a maximum of 179 are expected to still be practising, as only half of the Fellows, and none of the Retired, Life, or Honourable Life Members are still practising in the production environment.  This number correlates favourably with the equivalent categories of mine surveyors registered with the South African Council for Professional and Technical Surveyors (PLATO), which lists up to 169 individuals for 2014.

What these numbers tell us, is that generally speaking in the South African mining industry on mines requiring mine surveying supervision, every active certificated mine surveyor covers four to five mines.

What happened?  Is this wilfulness on behalf of the mining companies, or is it neglect?  Is the DMR too lenient in granting these multiple appointments?  As always there is a bit of both.  But the real issue is that mining as a profession has suffered a severe decline in the numbers of new entrants in the profession, and this has a more noticeable affect on mine surveying as it is seen as a Cinderella branch of mining.  Indeed, the number of new Mine Surveyors’ Certificates of Competency (MSCC) being issued remains steady at four to six per annum, which is less than a third of the number annually exiting the mine surveying profession through retirement, death, or more recently, retrenchments.

Many of South Africa’s underground mines are ageing, and are becoming more spatially complex, which in turn leads to an increased potential for accidents. The mining industry simply cannot afford to wait for a major accident to occur before taking action on the issue of multiple appointing of mine surveyors.  Worse still, the population is ageing, with 110 of the 169, or 65% of the PLATO-registered certificated mine surveyors, now older than 50 years and targets for early retirement or separation exercises. In five years’ time, we can expect the situation to worsen unless we endeavour to entice new entrants into the profession and recruit those who were prematurely exited from active duty to return and assume legal responsibilities with real means at their disposal.

This matter needs to be urgently addressed by a tripartite discussion between labour, employer and the State.

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