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Exposed to dust and condemned to death: The case of Hwange Colliery workers

By Calvin Manika

A strong wind blows, taking along with it dusty particles that form a cloud-like mist in the air as residents who live near a coal dump site at Hwange Colliery Company run for cover.

As the dust settles, at least for a while, residents dust themselves up before going about their business.

This is a daily occurrence here at Number 1 compound at Hwange Colliery Company, one of Zimbabwe’s main coal producers.

For workers, who toil the coalfields and underground mine shafts, the thick dust has become part of their lives.

Working in coal fields is a health risk and sometimes a death sentence as workers are exposed to life-threatening dusty particles.

Maziwe Phulu*, 68 who has worked for the colliery company for over 30 years is suffering from a lung disease.

Due to the exposure to a dusty working environment at the mine, workers suffers from, Pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

They suffer in silence and eventually die. Oblivious of safety and healthy concerns others may follow the same route if they fail to get help.

Black lung disease can develop when coal dust is inhaled over a long period. Mining experts say coal dust is made of dangerous carbon-containing particles that coal miners are at risk of inhaling, which is why it is mostly considered an occupational disease.

An investigation by CITE shows that several current and former workers expressed their disappointment in the way HCCL neglects its workers by not fully complying with the Safety Health and Environment (SHE) policy on occupational health.

“Workers are not fully protected when it comes to dust. The respirators and essential PPEs are not always in place, or they are obsolete. Safety first should be the motto in every mining activity. Helmets, gloves, and boots are not the only PPEs, respiratory issues are not taken seriously at the Colliery,” Phulu told CITE.

While Colliery workers bemoan growing negligence, the company continues to posture as a caring organisation with employee welfare at heart.

A report by the Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG) on the situation of coal mining in Hwange – Special Focus On Hwange Colliery Company published in July 2016 noted that the quality of air in Hwange town is hazardous for human health.

“It affects lungs thereby causing breathing difficulties in villagers, who now need to take pills or drink cold milk to ease their respiratory challenges. Exposure to polluted air and coal dust may lead to a high incidence of pneumoconiosis and black lung disease among miners and their relatives,” reads the report.

Workers around coal mines have a high risk of chronic lung diseases like pneumoconiosis (black lung), severe lung problems and lung cancer, dust allergy, and asthma due to inhalation of coal.

CITE understands that dozens of mine workers have since stopped reporting for duty due to deteriorating health, with some having been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis.

Symptoms of pneumoconiosis can take years to develop and includes chest pain that usually worsens when taking a deep breath, fatigue, confusion, or delirium, especially in older adults. In the early stages, the most common symptoms are cough, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

Sometimes the coughing may produce black sputum (mucus). These symptoms may initially occur after strenuous activity, but as the disease worsens, they may become present while an individual rests.

An investigation by this publication revealed that some workers who contract the disease are being transferred from the minefields to other departments.

The transfers are normally done to avoid costs involved in compensating affected workers

An ex-colliery worker said it is unfortunate that a big company like HCCL has failed to ensure safety issues.

“The testing process is said to be free, but I don’t see the transparency as the doctor who sees us and tests for the disease is the company medical doctor who happens to be the current managing director. Mind you that colliery has its hospital, a fully-fledged one for that matter. So, all these things are in-house. How can one be sure with the results,” a former worker said.

Pangani Bhaloyi*, a former Colliery worker who still resides in the company’s quarters said underground mineworkers were at risk.

“Historically mainly underground mine workers were the most affected. I do not have much information about other surrounding mines. But, when a worker is diagnosed positive, he or she goes through recommendations that include tests at NSSA, change of environment if the employee still has age on his side. Pneumoconiosis has no treatment, but the employee has symptoms. The symptoms are treated,” notes Bhaloyi.

Workers are tested for pneumoconiosis after every year, a recent development from the previous one which was conducted after three years.

National Union of Mine Workers in Zimbabwe (NUMWZ) Hwange Para Legal Officer Kevin Mawoyo says his union is engaging the Colliery on labour rights.

“I am yet to find out more since I am fairly new but relating to the case I am handling; it might sound to be true. All these are still on the cards, it’s only that we have had a lot to deal with regarding violations of labour rights that’s why we are yet to find time to engage them on those issues,” said Mawoyo.

Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union Secretary General Justice Chinhema said the Colliery needs to prioritise workers’ health adding that more tests need to be done to ascertain the gravity of the situation.

“There are no known statistics now because an exit medical examination that must be carried out when a mine worker retire has not been done. Hwange Colliery knows why they don’t want this. As a union, we are engaging NSSA to carry out these exercises to ascertain the effects. We know former workers got infected. And this needs to be recorded and we shall do everything within our means. This is one of the fundamental areas we seek to address as a union. We know our people were affected. We actually would have loved to hire doctors,” hints Chinhema.

When CITE reached out to Mildred Matunga, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) Education and Publicity Officer for Matabeleland North, said issues of workers’ health and safety were a prerogative of NSSA.

“Pneumoconiosis Act of Zimbabwe is administered by NSSA. It is the appreciate authority to anything to do with the health of the worker at a workstation,” says Matunga.

To avoid chest infections, Hwange workers are given milk.

In a notice, titled ‘Milk doesn’t reduce risk of pneumoconiosis’ NSSA argues that milk cannot be used to treat Pneumoconiosis.  

“The disease will have to be managed for the rest of one’s life. In Zimbabwe, the Pneumoconiosis Act Chapter 15:08 seeks to protect those working in dusty occupations from the danger of contracting the disease. Industrialists were happy to bear the cost of providing milk to employees. It was cheaper than having to engineer dust out of the workplace.

“The practice of giving milk to workers in dusty occupations has no merit in the prevention of pneumoconiosis since a dust particle inhaled into the body takes a different route from that taken by swallowed milk. It has the opposite effect of promoting pneumoconiosis, as workers remove dust masks because of the false sense of safety from the milk they take,” warned NSSA.

An independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EMA) Report for Hwange coal mining activities by the Centre for Natural Governance (CNRG) exposed that the workers in the mines have a high risk of chronic lung diseases like Pneumoconiosis (black lung).

“In one example an interviewed worker who requested anonymity explained that two workers employed by the colliery company have also stopped coming to work because of health deterioration after being diagnosed with pneumoconiosis. The companies do not have proper dust suppression models in place and as a result, dust is hurled up in the air which ends up reaching households in Ingagula 1, 3 and 5 townships and ultimately affecting residents. The ash suppression machines which were used in the past to dispose of the ash in the dams after burning the coal are now dysfunctional,” notes the report.  

HCCL Public Relations manager Beauty Mutombe did not respond to questions sent to her by email.  

The HCCL Condensed Interim Financial Results For the half-year ended 30 June 2021 in an Administrator’s Letter on Safety, Health, Environment, and Quality was silent on pneumoconiosis

“The lost shift injury frequency rate improved due to initiatives like people focus, systems implementation, and technology embracing. HCCL embraced a risk/opportunity-based approach to operations aimed at zero harm. Likewise, robust measures aimed at reducing similar incidents related to non-communicable diseases were established through a Wellness policy.

*names changed to protect their identity

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