Mine safety major concern
South African trip was eye-opener for Yellowknives Dene

by Chris Meyers Almey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 18/97) - Diamonds might grace necks but Fred Sangris wants to make sure diamond miners don't get it in the neck when it comes to safety.

So he took a trip recently to South Africa to see how diamond mines operate there.

Sangris is with the Yellowknives First Nation land and environment department. He says he saw some things that he didn't really appreciate. In fact, some of what he saw downright disturbed him.

As a result, he wants to see unions representing workers here -- something that unions have been invited to do in South Africa since the end of apartheid a few years ago.

For decades white people controlled South Africa and under the old apartheid system, blacks were segregated and denied basic human rights. And one of the features of apartheid's racism was unsafe working conditions, Sangris says.

He wants to ensure that fellow tribal members are treated well here, given good jobs and training, and -- most importantly -- work in safe conditions.

It is widely believed, Sangris says, that in South Africa, 50,000 miners have lost their lives over the last 100 years.

Sangris points out that the same companies that operate there are exploring here, and he doesn't want to see them applying their working conditions here.

But Rob Johnstone, a territorial government geologist, says we have adequate safeguards here.

Canada has all facets of mining and the safety associated with them is on the record, he says.

Open-pit mining, such as what BHP will do at is Lac de Gras mine, is the cheapest and safest way of mining, he says. "We are one of the world's leaders in mine engineering and we can't really forget that," Johnstone says.

Johnstone reflected upon another area of Sangris' concerns.

"There was quite a stringent (mine) health and safety act created last year," Johnstone says.

In fact, the new NWT Mine Safety Act is so tough it has created problems in exploration camps, he notes.

Mining can be hazardous, as in any industry, Johnstone says. But the territorial government is in charge of mine safety and the safety record here is a good indicator of how effective the regulations are.

BHP is a company that has stringent safety controls, Johnstone says, noting also that this is its first diamond mine. "BHP around the world had quite a good safety program."

But Hank van Valpen, president of Local 802, United Steelworkers of America, says that mine safety can always be improved and one mandate of the new NWT mining act calls for an upgrading of health and safety regulations. This is being done by a joint committee of labor, management and GNWT mine inspection services representatives.

In a general context, mine safety seems to have improved in the NWT, van Valpen says. There hasn't been a fatality in the past year.

But Sangris says there is a lot of danger associated with landslides in open-pit mines and, in the rainy season, there can be mudslides, Sangris warns

In South Africa, it is common for workers to be killed in these slides, he says. "The real danger here is from snowslides."

Johnstone, however, points out that this area of Canada doesn't get much snow.

If there is a problem it would come from groundwater and that would be an engineering problem, he says.

Meanwhile, South Africans are looking to Canada for ideas on stewardship of the environment, the work place and mine safety, adopting what we are doing here so they can upgrade working conditions there, Sangris says.

Unions have been invited into South Africa to foster better working conditions for workers, he notes.

Sangris travelled in the company of a few others, including a B.C. member of the United Steelworkers Humanity Fund.