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Mining silicosis: How SA's medical compensation system is failing mineworkers

Since the discovery of the major gold deposits on the Witwatersrand in 1886, gold mining has shaped South Africa for better and for worse.

(Also read our article: Former mineworkers seeking medical compensation)

South African mines have produced roughly 40 % of all gold ever mined on the planet.

Consequently, South Africa’s miners are among the workers worst affected by silicosis and other occupational lung diseases in the world.

What is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica.

It is the primary occupational disease of the industrial revolution, the consequence of drilling, blasting and grinding.

Law

Legislation has long existed for miners with occupational lung disease to be compensated. Workers with occupational diseases are entitled to compensation from the state in terms of the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMW), but the system doesn't seem work.

As a result, an increasing number of mineworkers and their families throughout South Africa and nearby, labour-sending countries are turning to the court system in an attempt to get compensation.

South African gold miners. Image credit: Gianluigi Guercia/ AFP/ Getty Images.

702 and CapeTalk presenter Redi Tlhabi spoke with Professor Rodney Ehrlich, Epidemiologist in the field of silicosis and TB at UCT.

Ehrlich is connected to UCT's department of public health and family medicine and has treated sick mineworkers for more than 30 years.

Ehrlich says the number of former mineworkers waiting to be compensated is only recently emerging in the public space.

We've had statutory compensation system for about a century and it’s always functioned very poorly. More recently it’s received the publicity it’s never had before.

Professor Rodney Ehrlich,Epidemiologist in the field of silicosis and TB at UCT

It is primarily black former mineworkers that have little to no access or knowledge to the compensation system - racial politics inherited from the apartheid regime, according to Ehrlich.

A large number of workers are still suffering and a very small portion have received the compensation entitled to them. So I think the term ‘crisis’ is accurate here.

Professor Rodney Ehrlich,Epidemiologist in the field of silicosis and TB at UCT

Reasons for failure

The ODMW Act governs the response to work-related lung diseases, including silicosis and tuberculosis, among mineworkers only. It requires employers to pay levies into a fund from which compensation benefits are drawn.

Ehrlich says that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the effectiveness of insurance fund.

He claims that the fund would probably be insolvent if every mine worker who is entitled to compensation made a claim.

There is a backlog of about 8 000 claims awaiting medical certification and a further backlog of approximately 104 000 payments of valid claims.

According to Ehrlich these are the main reasons that the insurance fund is failing mineworkers:

  • Poor access.
  • Administrative failure.
  • Understaffing.
  • Underfunding.

Listen to the full conversation from The Redi Thlabi Show:


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