Employee health and safety contributes significantly towards sustainability in the mining industry. It is for this reason that Exxaro Resources hosts the Sustainability Summit annually to communicate and discuss health and safety issues with employees.

By Dineo Phoshoko

South Africa is currently experiencing the second wave of the Coronavirus. As such now more than ever, the country needs to work collectively to effectively manage the spread of the virus.

For the mining industry, companies need to ensure that Covid-19 regulations are followed to protect employee health and safety.

The Summit started in 2009 and has been hosted by various sites including Grootegeluk, The Connexion Head Office, Matla Mine and Leeuwpan Mine to name a few. Speaking to Mining News, Dr Joseph Matjila, group manager for health and safety at Exxaro explains that the Sustainability Summit is an event that the company prioritises annually on the corporate calendar.

Purpose of the Summit

According to Matjila, the Summit was inspired by a business need when the company experienced safety challenges which saw them experiencing between three and four fatalities yearly in 2008 and 2009. “At that point the CEO and the executive committee believed that there was a need to relook at our approach on safety,” Matjila says.

The first summit was held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria (Tshwane) and was a multi-stakeholder formation which included union representatives and the, where the organisation together with its stakeholders came together to discuss what needed to be done to change the unimpressive safety performance at the time. “The summit in its nature is a forum where the employer, the employee, authorities and any other stakeholder that has got an interest in our safety, comes around the table to focus on safety.”

At that first Summit, stakeholders collectively agreed on holding the bad safety performance to account, and that everyone was equally responsible for driving the safety performance of the organisation in a particular direction.

The safety improvement plan was compiled and signed off by all stakeholders. The plan identified five key pillars as follows:

  1. Incredible leadership in driving safety
  2. Safety Communication
  3. Safety Training
  4. Risk management
  5. Zero tolerance

According to Matjila, these five pillars have been the bedrock of the safety strategy of the company. The Summit falls within the communication pillar as it was used as a platform to communicate safety related issues to the Exxaro employees and stakeholders. “We use the Sustainability Summit as a point in time where we reflect on how we have progressed on the previous year on safety”

In addition, the Summit is a recommitment on the journey that was signed off initially in order to pursue the zero-harm vision of the group. Matjila says that at the helm of the group’s safety strategy, is the zero-harm vision which feeds into the bigger strategy of the group. “We have the sustainability strategy, but it is informed by a vision of zero harm,” he explains.

The strategy also addresses lifestyle conditions and mental health issues. Matjila stresses that it is important to understand the status of one’s health. As such, the company has put a lot of effort into making employees aware of certain health and wellness areas that are most likely to be compromised. He explains that in a mining company, one is likely to be exposed to occupational health risks – diseases directly related to the work one does – and non-occupational risks which consist of lifestyle diseases. Exxaro has occupational health centres and employee assistance programme (EAP) to support people with wellness related issues including mental health. “Its integrated in the current Exxaro health and wellness strategy.”

Over the years, the Summit has developed where it not only focus on safety, but it also looks at all the elements of sustainability namely: safety, health and hygiene, environment and climate. “Those are the key areas that over time we look at in the summit,” Matjila says.

2021 Sustainability Summit

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Matjila has not received sign off for the 2021 Summit. However, he maintains that the pandemic will not prohibit the company from achieving objectives outlined in the communication pillar. The objectives include acknowledging and celebrating no fatalities at Exxaro’s operations, communicating messages of health and safety throughout the company and further recommitment for improvement. Matjila highlights that it is highly unlikely that the objective of safety communication will be achieved through the Sustainability Summit alone.

There are other critical interventions that are part of the communication pillar which can be used to achieve objectives set out in this pillar. The Safety Indaba is one of them. Unlike the Summit, the Indaba is hosted by operations where the mine leadership and other stakeholders identify stumbling blocks that could potentially prevent the company from achieving zero harm.

The Safety Leadership Day is another intervention where all executive members take time off to go and engage with the workforce around safety measures. There is also the safety leadership message where each year a different executive committee member share messages about the company’s safety performance which is shared with all employees. All three interventions are part of the communication pillar in the safety improvement plan. They will most likely go ahead in 2021.

Dealing with Covid-19

“Incidentally, our measures of dealing with the pandemic were actually informed by our health and wellness strategy,” says Matjila. The group’s health and wellness strategy is based on three pillars, the first being diagnosis. “You can only manage what you are able to understand. Diagnosis is critical for our strategy.” The second pillar is management. “When you do have a condition, you need to manage the condition be it HIV/AIDS, TB or hypertension.” The final pillar is the perusal of a preventative strategy. “We’d rather spend more effort in preventing you from being infected or having a health condition.”

Matjila explains that the company adopted a preventative health system. “We’re actually moving our health system from a curative employer driven solution, to an employee preventative health solution. Covid-19 has been a perfect example of how that can be done,” Matjila says. Using Covid-19 as an example, Matjila says there is currently no cure for the virus however there are measures to manage the virus if contracted.

Exclusive: A summit addressing mine health and safety

Exxaro has put various measures in place to deal with the pandemic. They include two Covid-19 labs for testing individuals internally. The labs have a turnaround time of three hours. There are also isolation and quarantine facilities. Such measures are helpful in identifying infected individuals and removing them from the work environment before they infect others. “Whether you have medical aid or not, you can test for free at Exxaro,” Matjila says.

There are also free quarantine and isolation facilities for Exxaro employees and contractors to be housed until they have fully recovered from the virus. Overall, there are also mandatory measures such as social distancing, sanitising, PPE and amended business processes. “Our ability to defeat this pandemic is going to be based on us preventing it,” Matjila says. The company’s measures were effective as recovery rate is 90%. “Covid-19 was a real litmus test of the robustness our strategy.”

Greenhouse and water reduction

From an environmental point of view, there has been a big focus on reducing greenhouse gases and water. At the 2019 Sustainability Summit, Exxaro reaffirmed its commitment to not only reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 30%, but also to reduce its water use by 30% and its energy intensity by 20% by 2026. Matjila maintains that the company is on track to achieve the goals in the given time frame. The reduction of water and carbon emissions is currently at 5% year on year. “We are comfortable that we are going to achieve that target,” he says.

The company has adopted the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework to engage with shareholders and other stakeholders on climate issues. Matjila explains that at a multi-national level, there are certain expectations that stakeholders have of companies such as Exxaro, to show how climate change is dealt with from a strategy level.

He adds that Exxaro is currently working on aligning the company’s reporting process to articulate key aspects to an extent where one will be able to see how well the company is progressing in terms of emissions reduction, energy efficiency, and other sustainability metrics.

Exxaro’s safety interventions have yielded positive results. After signing off and executing the safety improvement plan, the company started seeing a downward trend of safety performance. The company went from an average of four fatalities a year to three and a half years with no fatalities. The company’s interventions and efforts won them an award in 2018 for the best safety performance for mine companies with more than 10 000 people. Matjila proudly acknowledges the award considering that 70% of Exxaro employees are contractors and that the company managed to drop the fatality rate from four to zero and can sustain it. He attributes the success to the safety strategy and campaigns such as Khetha Ukuphepha which puts the onus on safety on employees.

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