MINING has been the mainstay of Zambia’s economy for the last 50 years now with the industry contributing a fair share to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
It continues to dictate the pace at which Zambia’s economy grows, as evidenced by the amount of investment the industry attracts annually.
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in copper mining alone has reached US$5 billion over the last decade in Zambia, coupled with other capital injections in the quarrying of coal, nickel, cobalt and manganese.
Underground mining is most predominant in Zambia, especially on the Copperbelt province with Mufulira, Luanshya, Chililabombwe and Chingola the main areas providing jobs in such activities.
Solwezi in North Western province will soon join the fray with the opening of the Kalumbila Mine which would supplement already existing Kansanshi quarry.
The downside of underground mining in Zambia has, however, been mine accidents that have in certain circumstances either claimed lives or left others with permanent injuries.
Suffice to say that the mines of today are cautious about safety with some recording zero fatalities, but when tragedy strikes, it is always fatal.
Recently, seven miners at Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) were injured in an underground accident at Konkola Deep Mining Project in Chililabombwe.
The seven were in a cage ferrying miners underground which tripped at level 434 metres deep that morning.
Thomas Mukupa sustained serious head injuries and was admitted to Konkola Mine Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) while the rest who complained of general body pains and were admitted to hospital for observation.
Mukupa was later evacuated to South Africa for specialist treatment on the injuries suffered on his head.
Production and other mining activities have since been temporarily suspended and investigations instituted to determine the cause of the accident.
The worst ever underground mine accident recorded in Zambia was the “1970 Mufulira mine disaster” where 89 miners died due to flooding.
This country was in a month long period of national mourning for the 89 victims though it is said that there could have been a few more that also died there.
Certain accidents are caused by natural calamities such as flooding but obviously the Mine Safety Department (MSD) should by now have taken steps to avoid accidents under their control.
Yes, the MSD has made some improvements in curbing the underground mine accidents as a Human Rights Watch report reveals.
I was privy to some information from a publication and picked up a few key notes on the strides that Zambia has made towards ensuring mine safety.
In the November 2011 report, Human Rights Watch wrote that two China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Corporation (CNMC) subsidiaries in Zambia on the required workers to work 12-hour shifts underground.
The nature of work here is dangerous and impacts negatively on safety and health.
In perhaps the most important labour improvement following Human Rights Watch’s report, miners at CNMC’s Sino Metals plant reported that their 12-hour shifts in early 2012 were changed to eight hours.
Many miners who previously worked 72 hours a week handling chemicals in a hazardous environment now have a 48-hour work week which is standard under Zambian law and in accordance with international labour laws.
Sadly though, some workers at several mining companies revealed that they rarely see inspectors from the MSD and when they do, it’s generally in response to an accident.
Government has disputed the workers’ claims that they rarely perform inspections, and the State said that they are doing their best with minimal resources.
But the Human Right Watch reveals that at the end of 2012, the MSD was understaffed and underfunded to an extent that made it unable to carry out the necessary preventative inspections.
However, in 2013, there appears to be notable progress as K5.66 million funding was made available to the MSD in the national budget.
This has resulted in potential to hire additional safety inspectors, a positive development that Government needs to ensure that the MSD consistently receives the money to support its operations.
The Human Rights Watch concluded this report with a call to the Zambian government to ensure that all copper-mining firms regularly replace equipment used in the course of work.
People with the authority to oversee the safety of mines should be in synchronisation with the law and ensure that companies adhere to these policies.
Investigations are yet to prove what really happened at KCM but we would all appreciate that the safety of those working underground is very vital.
The majority of these people are bread winners and their families depend on them for survival.
By now, the mines should be in possession of the revised mineral development policy with Government strictly monitoring adherence to the document.