Recklessness in translationAssmang has always had a weakness for ditching safety plans
Mziwakhe HlanganiJust ten years ago, Assmang, a high risk ferro-metals producer recommitted itself to act in accordance with health and safety measures because metalworkers were falling sick and dying in numbers from work-related diseases.
However, the number of those affected continued to grow. Work accidents appeared to be greater than before. Assmang management unashamedly displayed that it had never been true to its word.
The company was warned as early as 1995 about the deadly manganese dust levels, but did nothing when pressed to implement an eight-hour exposure measurements arrangement, a labour department enquiry heard at the end of April.
This enquiry is acontinuation of the one reported on in the last Numsa News.The enquiry is trying to establish whether the company is to blame for alleged deaths and illnesses due to manganism. Manganism is a brain condition often acquired by exposure to high manganese dust levels.
It has an effect on the central nervous system similar to Parkinsonâ€™s disease and multiple sclerosis. In the enquiry the company appeared unconcerned and showed the face of â€œunapologetic archangelâ€ as experts on occupational health and safety led damning evidence exposing blatant negligence by the management.
Tensions could have sparked an electric fire as judged by the adversarial mood that existed in the enquiry.Occupational hygienist Harold Gaze, who conducted a risk assessment consultation for Assmang, told the enquiry how he recorded and submitted recommendations on ways to deal with measurements of overexposure which were often three times higher than the legislated levels of exposure in the past ten years.
In terms of occupational health legislation, manganese dust exposure levels should be limited to 5mg per cubic metre. He told the enquiry under cross-examination that nothing had been done by the company to reduce the effects of this exposure.
Other measures that he made and estimates proffered to the company were rejected out of hand by management, he said.
Although local exhaust ventilation systems (intended to reduce dust levels exposure) on the smelter floors were not in good working order, the company often continued its normal production with total disregard for the effects on workers.
Gaze also spoke of the poor health and safety management and slipshod behaviour of managers in implementing strict protective clothing and standard gas masks in the workplace.
He pointed out that the use of protective masks was not properly monitored and the masks themselves were not up to standard and less effective.It also appeared that those who had been issued with the masks were not being forced by the company to wear them.The hearing will continue from May 26-30 2008.
ExplosionsMeanwhile Numsa has found documentary evidence that shows that management was alerted to the possible â€œloss of life and major damageâ€ two days before the fatal explosion that killed six workers earlier this year.
It was the second explosion that had ripped through the plant within the last six months.
Numsa discovered this after it had commissioned an investigation by an independent expert to establish the cause of the Furnace 6 explosion at Assmang in Cato Ridge, Pietermaritzburg on February 21, 2008.
The investigation found that consulting engineers had also warned Assmang that to keep Furnace 6 operational could result in a â€œmajor explosion and endanger the lives of all personnel working around the furnace.
What remains unclear is the reason behind managementâ€™s rejection of consulting engineerâ€™s advice to shut down Furnace 6 after it had been made clear that severe damage to the suspension mantle created an extremely dangerous situation.
Assmang was warned that a real possibility existed that the damage would increase to the extent that the lower part of the mantle would break loose and most certainly result in a major explosion.
On the basis of this documentary evidence, Numsa has demanded that the management must come clean or else the labour department must take drastic action against the company.
With regard to the possibility of repairing the damaged components of the furnace mantle electrodes within five weeks, the union has also established that the management chose to endanger the lives of innocent metalworkers and continued with production in the extremely damaged furnace just for the sake of profits.
The union is still investigating among others, the whereabouts of the minutes of the management meeting that discussed the consulting engineersâ€™ report two days before the explosion of the furnace.
Assmang's commitment to safety is tarnished . The incriminating fax warning Assmang of the potential danger.
Remember World Health and Safety Day – May 9 2008
Each year:* 2.2 million workers lose their lives due to occupational injuries and illness* workplace accidents cause at least 350,000 deaths * hazardous substances kill about 440,000 workers * Over 270 million workers are injured and 160 million a year become ill as a result of work injuries.