Disaster Raises Safety Issue In South Africa's Gold Mines

THE deaths of up to 100 workers in one of South Africa's worst underground accidents at the Vaal Reefs gold mine has reopened the bitter debate about safety in what are among the world's deepest and deadliest mines.

Each year hundreds of black men die and thousands are badly injured in the country's gold mines that are sometimes 2.5 miles deep.

Officials at the Anglo American mine in Orkney said there was little chance of finding survivors after up to 100 miners plunged 1,500 feet down a shaft in a lift cage that was crushed under a fallen locomotive.

Mines and Energy Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha said it appeared that human error was to blame, and an investigation had already begun. Trade unions and politicians renewed demands for more stringent safety measures for thousands of gold miners across the country, most of whom are poorly paid black men.

Cries have been growing louder for action by industry chiefs since the country's first black-led government came to power under President Nelson Mandela a year ago. His African National Congress party has long championed the rights of workers.

Through the end of March this year, 73 men died in South African mines, according to the Chamber of Mines owners' association. For all of 1994, 358 men died in gold mines, and more than 5,000 injured.

Machinery is deafening. Dust may cause health problems. Despite air conditioning, the rock can be 100 degrees F. If pressure builds up, water or toxic fumes can leak or roofs collapse.

The chamber says it is concerned about the high casualty toll. It holds out hopes for action on a Commission of Inquiry on mine conditions last year, which among other matters suggested greater consultation on safety among the industry, government, and unions in a joint regulatory body.

''We are extremely concerned about the fatality figures,'' said chamber spokesman Llewellyn Kriel. ''Even one fatality is one too many.''

The primarily black National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) says mine owners are not doing enough for its 339,000 members, and that companies are more concerned with profit margins shrunken by weak gold prices than making mines safer.

''How can anyone put a monetary value on a human life?'' asked NUM spokeswoman Laura James. ''The statistics bear out the fact that South African mines are among the most dangerous in the world, yet not enough is being done to make them safer.''

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