Former miners at Sasol Coal are taking the company to the Johannesburg High Court to get compensation for the lung diseases they allege they contracted because of their work environment.
By Ciaran Ryan
Twenty-two former underground miners are claiming more than R80 million in damages coming from Sasol Coal after they contracted serious lung in addition to also additional diseases as a result of years of inhaling coal dust while working in underground coal mines.
They are arguing that will Sasol Coal was negligent in failing to take adequate care to maintain healthy working conditions underground, in violation of several health in addition to also safety laws. Even if the item was not negligent, the miners say the company bears the liability of their ill-health in addition to also loss of income for being unable to work.
The miners are represented by Richard Spoor, the attorney who last year reached a R5-billion settlement with seven gold mining companies for miners afflicted with silicosis contracted after years of breathing silica dust in underground mines.
In papers before the Johannesburg High Court, 12 of the miners say they were dismissed coming from employment because they contracted lung-related illnesses which made them unable to continue working. They are claiming for the loss of income, aggravated by their inability to find alternative work due to age, illness, low educational levels in addition to also lack of qualifications. The largest individual claim is actually R10.2 million, in addition to also the smallest is actually just under R1 million.
“The plaintiffs have suffered permanent physical impairment. Such impairment includes shortness of breath, generalised weakness, chronic chest discomfort, tiredness in addition to also disturbed sleep,” states the miners’ particulars of claim before the court.
One of the principle hazards to which they were exposed was noxious coal dust that will cause lung diseases such as Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) in addition to also Chronic Pulmonary Disease (COPD). These diseases can lead to respiratory symptoms such as a persistent cough in addition to also shortness of breath, resulting in a reduced ability to perform physical tasks. These can eventually develop into Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF), which reduces life expectancy. If coal miners with CWP or COPD are further exposed to coal dust, the severity of the disease is actually likely to improve.
The miners argue that will Sasol Coal should have known of these health hazards, in addition to also through dust sampling in addition to also measurement should have been aware of the quantities of coal dust to which miners were exposed. Routine medical surveillance, if undertaken, could have established whether miners were at risk coming from the levels of dust inside the underground mines.
Sasol denies liability
In its reply, Sasol argues that will the matter has prescribed – meaning the item is actually currently too late to bring before the court. The Prescription Act requires such matters to be brought within three years of the alleged offence. Summons was served on the company in April 2015, more than three years after most of the miners had left Sasol’s employ.
Sasol’s court papers show several of the miners were dismissed for illegal strike action, in addition to also some had received medical compensation once their conditions had been diagnosed. One of the miners has since passed away. In additional cases, workers’ medical conditions were deemed not severe enough for compensation. Some of the miners had previously worked at additional mines, which may have aggravated their medical conditions. In additional cases, Sasol denies the miners suffered coming from any lung disease, in addition to also no occupational diseases were diagnosed, so no benefits were paid out on their dismissal.
Sasol also questions some of the medical assumptions on which the miners base their claim, adding that will CWP seldom causes significant disability. the item also denies that will COPD is actually developed by everyone who breathes coal dust.
The company argues that will the item provided proper mine ventilation to reduce dust particles to acceptable levels, in addition to also all workers were given adequate protective gear. To reduce the risk to miners’ health, remote-controlled mine machinery was employed, allowing operators to control the machines coming from a safe distance. the item further argues that will the miners have not been able to identify any act or omission that will caused their injuries, in addition to also that will the company took reasonable measures to address in addition to also reduce the risk of harmful exposure to dust on its mines.
Sasol also argues that will inside the event of dust hazards, the miners themselves could have been negligent in not noticing, avoiding in addition to also reporting the hazard (to which the miners reply that will the harmful dust is actually invisible to the eye, in addition to also therefore almost impossible to detect). Should the court find Sasol Coal guilty of negligence, the corresponding negligence of the miners should reduce the amount of damages to be paid, says Sasol.
The Mine Health in addition to also Safety Act (MHSA) sets out the health in addition to also safety obligations on mine operators, who are likely to provide a work environment that will is actually safe in addition to also does not pose a risk to workers’ health. Mines are also required to periodically measure the health dangers in addition to also investigate every serious illness in order that will the causes can be isolated in addition to also mitigated. the item is actually also claimed that will the company failed to properly ventilate the mines.
The miners argue that will Sasol violated mining legislation by failing to ensure its mines were safe in addition to also healthy.
Expert medical reports show several of the miners on pain medication for lung-related complaints in addition to also additional diseases. The reports suggest dust masks were available only some of the time while working underground.
The Sasol mines named inside the court papers are Bosjesspruit, Brandspruit, Middelbult, Syferfontein, Twistdraai in addition to also Sigma.
The case is actually about to enter the pre-trial stage where the opposing parties will narrow down the areas of dispute. If settlement is actually not reached before then, the matter will likely go on trial in 2020.