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Liability Insurance
Thursday, June 11, 2015 - 16:30
Stirring the dust

South African human rights lawyer Richard Spoor filed an action in the South Gauteng High Court on 2nd April 2015 for damages on behalf of 22 current and former coal mine workers who have contracted lung diseases as a result of their employment on Sasol Mining (Pty) Limited’s South African coal mines.

The applicants include Joseph Makoti, a 51-year-old coal mine worker from Bethal, and 21 other former mine workers, all of whom have allegedly contracted an occupational lung disease as a result of their exposure to coal mine dust while employed on Sasol’s Coal mines. Coal mine dust is generated and raised into the air in the course of coal mining operations and, if inhaled can cause lung diseases including Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP), Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF) and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
Makoti and his fellow plaintiffs worked at Sasol Mining’s Bosjesspruit, Brandspruit, Middelbult, Syferfontein and Twistdraai collieries for different lengths of time, from 1971 to now. All of the collieries are located near Secunda in the Mpumalanga Highveld.
The defendant, Sasol Mining, is a subsidiary of Sasol Limited an international energy and chemicals company listed on the New York and Johannesburg stock exchanges. Sasol employs more than 32 000 people in 37 countries. Its petrochemical plants produce fuels and oils, chemicals, polymers, fertilisers, explosives and gas. Coal is used in its plants as a chemical feedstock.        
The plaintiffs allege that Sasol Mining failed to provide and maintain a working environment in its mines that was safe and without risk to the health of its employees and that it failed to comply with the statutory and common law duties that it owed them. Such alleged failures included a failure to provide appropriate personal protective equipment and to inform and to educate its employees regarding the danger posed by coal mine dust to their health. Crucially, they also allege Sasol failed to take effective measures to ensure that its employees were not exposed to harmful quantities of coal mine dust. As a result of these failures, the plaintiffs claim they have contracted lung diseases that threaten not only their lives but also their livelihoods and the wellbeing of their families.
“When I went to work, I was proud to have the job and to support my family. I didn’t know that the work I was doing would harm me in this way. Now I am sick and no one will employ me. I know that I will be sick for the rest of my life. All I want is to be able live my life as best as I can and to take care of my family,” said Joseph Makoti.
“It was Sasol Mining’s responsibility to ensure that its employees were not exposed to harmful quantities of coal mine dust. The plaintiffs contend that at all times Sasol was aware that the measures that it took to limit its employee’s exposure to coal mine dust were not effective. It knew that its employees were being exposed to harmful quantities of dust and that they were therefore at grave risk of contracting these diseases” said Spoor.
He adds that “Coal miners do not control the environmental conditions to which they are exposed in the workplace. The dustiness of the work environment is largely a function of the mining methods employed, the effectiveness or not of the mine ventilation system and the adequacy of the engineering controls that are put in place to limit the release of dust into the atmosphere. The plaintiffs were therefore exposed to unsafe and unhealthy conditions that were largely outside of their control. Regrettably Sasol’s failure to maintain a safe and healthy work environment has caused permanent and irreparable damage to their health.”
“In our view these cases represent the tip of the iceberg” says Spoor “We believe that the prevalence of occupational lung diseases in coal mine workers is significantly higher than has generally been accepted and that there are many more coal mine workers with these diseases. We anticipate filing further claims against Sasol and against other coal mining companies in the future.”
The litigation was made possible by the March 2011 ruling of the Constitutional Court in the matter of Thembekile Mankayi v Anglo Gold Ashanti. The court ruled that mine workers with occupational lung disease were not precluded from suing their employers by the provisions of section 35 of the Compensation of Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA). COIDA was, until this ruling, construed as a bar to any employee from recovering common law damages from their employers in respect of any occupational injury or disease.
Lung diseases such as CWP and COPD are caused by exposure to harmful quantities of coal mine dust.
CWP is a chronic disease characterised by fibrosis (scarring) of the lung tissue, this may lead to shortness of breath, a persistent unproductive cough and a reduced capacity to perform work. Persons with CWP should be removed from exposure to mineral dusts to prevent the progression of the disease.
PMF, which is also known as “Complicated CWP”, is associated with a marked increase in severity of symptoms and in a significantly greater risk, than healthy persons, of contracting tuberculosis and other opportunistic lung infections. PMF also results in a significantly reduced life expectancy.
COPD is a chronic lung disease that typically results in airflow limitation and shortness of breath and shares features with bronchitis and emphysema. It is characterised by a persistent productive cough, wheezing and breathlessness. COPD may lead to right heart failure and chronic or acute respiratory failure. Persons suffering from COPD are at a significantly greater risk than healthy persons of contracting tuberculosis and other lung infections. It is a common cause of premature death.
 

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:28.4 1st April, 2015
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