Uranium miners scale back operations

…as threat level rises

By Jade McClune

THE two active uranium mines in the Erongo region have scaled down operations in response to the rising risk presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Swakop Uranium, the owners of Husab Uranium Mine in Erongo region announced last week that they had raised the risk rating at the mine after the confirmation of the first case of coronavirus infection of a woman at Swakopmund.

The mining company said, “The first COVID-19 case has been confirmed in Swakopmund. It involves a family of three, who had travelled to South Africa earlier in the month. They were staying in Windhoek and relocated to Swakopmund for the lockdown period. The virus was confirmed for the 35-year-old woman, while the results of her husband are still awaited.”

A second case of COVID-19 infection in the same family was later confirmed.

“With this being the first confirmed case in Erongo Region, the site risk rating will now move from Level 1 to Level 2, according to our SU Covid-19 Management Plan.” The mine subsequently put in place additional safety controls, including the mandatory wearing of masks (or respirators) during the commute to and from work on busses and shuttles, as well as onsite,” Swakop Uranium said.

The body temperature of employees would be monitored before they board the bus for work. This initial screening would be conducted by the drivers. Swakop Uranium also called on its employees to report any changes in their health status via their mobile app or by text messages to their departments.

In addition, there will be mandatory social distancing at work: no meetings with more than 10 people may take place and all staff are required to keep at least one-metre distance from others. “Since we are also in the lockdown period and some employees are working from home, we also encourage everyone to adhere to the national guidelines and to practice similar measures and control at home,” they said.

Nearby Rössing Uranium Mine has also curtailed mining operations. A company spokesperson told Confidente that Rössing started in January already to introduce measures to reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19 among its employees and contractors by putting control measures in place as prescribed by the World Health Organisation and in compliance with government directives.

“These measures include making Rössing employees and contractors working on site aware of the Covid-19 outbreak, creating awareness about the symptoms and introducing prescribed personal hygiene measures and social distancing actions to be taken.

“As first steps the company issued personal hand sanitizers and surgical masks to all employees and contractors for use on the buses and other means of transport to and from work. A detailed awareness programme was also introduced and information in this regard disseminated by making use of face-to-face communication, print and electronic media.

Communications manager Daylight Ekandjo said the mine “discontinued normal operations and entered a period of maintaining a minimal operation on site. As a result of this, the number of employees on site has been drastically reduced, working from home where practical… During this period, normal remuneration practices are applied and no employee is requested to put in leave.”

“Minimum mining activities are performed with a skeleton crew to ensure sufficient feed to the plant to remain producing in a safe and sustainable manner. Those that have to be at the mine to perform their duties, are reporting for duty on a voluntary basis and normal pay practices for such work also apply. Preventative measures, such as social distancing, maximum of 10 people in a meeting or gathering and wearing of masks at all times are observed.”

Rössing has also introduced daily health check-ins. Managers, supervisors and team leaders keep record of how their teams are feeling and escalate health concerns to their line leader. Further precautionary measures include the compulsory wearing of masks on company buses and vehicles; buses are disinfected before every trip; only 24 people are allowed on a 50-seater bus to enforce social distancing.

Alcohol tests by use of breathalysers at the access to the mine have been discontinued, and the bio-metrics access system, where employees had to clock in using their fingerprints, has been discontinued. They also use distant thermometers to check the temperature of workers before the workers board the bus. Rössing has meanwhile set up a health hotline for employees and contractors.

The slowdown in production comes after Mines and Energy Minister Tom Alweendo a fortnight ago called for a halt to mining operations. The impact of a prolonged shutdown on the wider mining industry could be severe. The Minerals Council of South Africa, an industry-led body, has warned that miners are set to lose a fifth of production in April and N$7 billion in wages if the lockdown persists.

Business Day cited the statement issued by the SA Minerals Council on Friday, saying it “stressed how important it was for its members to be allowed to continue mining from April 17 with all safety and mitigating protocols in place to prevent the disease.” It is as yet unclear whether the effect of the lockdown on production targets and stock prices will outweigh wider public health concerns.

Rössing and Husab, both majority Chinese-owned companies, are said to produce around 10 percent of the world’s uranium stocks.