The Labour Court’s looming deadline of 18 May 2020, compels government to issue detailed guidelines on health and safety and requires that all employers prepare and implement a Code of Practice to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 on mine employees returning to work.

Under Alert level 4, various mining operations are allowed to operate at partial capacity, with some allowed to scale up to full employment over time.

On 29 April 2020, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs advised how the mining sector should operate under Level 4. The Minister’s guidelines covered health and safety, the need for employers to set up screening and testing facilities for returning employees, and the provision of quarantine facilities and transport for employees.

One of the largest trade unions operating in the mining industry is AMCU. The union was not satisfied that the guidelines provide sufficient protection for returning employees and launched an urgent application in the Labour Court.

On 1 May 2020, the Labour Court ordered the Chief Inspector of Mines to publish health and safety guidelines by 18 May 2020. The Chief Inspector must also require employers to prepare and implement a Code of Practice to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 on returning employees.

Pending the publication of the guidelines by the Chief Inspector, all mining operations are required to comply with:

  • the Directives pertaining to mining operations that were issued by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy on 26 March 2020;
  • the Alert Level 4 Regulations and the health and safety guidelines issued on 29 April 2020; and
  • the Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) for COVID-19 for the mines.

The SOP sets out a substantive list of obligations on employers in relation to health and safety pertaining to COVID-19 and the workplace. These range from the preparation for the return of employees to the workplace to follow-ups in instances of positive cases and mandatory isolation. The key points from the SOP are as follows:

In preparation for return of employees, employers are required to:

  • Develop a procedure to manage the return to work setting out as far as possible:
    • a history of employees’ COVID-19 contact from their places of residence;
    • diagnostic, isolation and quarantine, reporting and testing procedures;
    • arrangements for employees to access medical care;
    • sufficient availability of medical and safety resources in the workplace as well as arrangements for access to medical care.
  • Communicate the return to work plan and procedure to the local Department of Minerals, Resources and Energy and Department of Health District Communicable Disease Staff.
  • Communicate all medical surveillance procedures to employees.
  • Ensure all employees and health officials assisting with the return to work undergo screening.
  • Ensure pre-screening of employees using company transport and of all persons on arrival at the company premises.
  • Ensure physical distancing at areas of the mine that require close proximity and when using company transportation.

After the arrival of employees, employers are required to:

  • Enforce all infection prevention and control measures pertaining to:
    • Employee awareness and education on COVID-19 and the duty to report instances of suspected or confirmed cases; and
    • The provision of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Ensure compliance with screening and testing at the designated areas, and in particular:
    • Pre-screening of all employees and visitors;
    • Isolation of employees with elevated temperatures; and
    • Return-to-work medicals to be conducted and each employee to be issued with a return-to-work note.
  • Assess employees in designated isolation areas and observe the following :
    • Employees who test positive are to self-isolate and be provided with PPE;
    • Contact tracing to be conducted in confirmed COVID-19 cases and results reported to district health authorities;
    • A detailed record of suspected cases and confirmed cases of COVID-19 to be compiled in a register; and
    • Fitness-to work assessment to be conducted on all employees returning to work after the period of self-isolation and a return to work note to be issued.

The mining industry is a major employer and the primary responsibility of health and safety in the workplace, falls on an employer. Employers are advised to get ahead of the curve, with preparing a Code of Practice to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 and in the interim, ensure the correct procedures are put in place to comply with the existing SOP, Directives and Regulations.