By the time that the World Health Organisation had elevated COVID-19 to pandemic status in March 2020, most mining companies had considered the potential risks to their people, the communities in which they operate, and their business.
At South Deep we developed a management response plan. Ours comprised separate yet inter-linked work streams that included creating awareness, implementing sound hygiene practices as well as treatment and isolation protocols and infrastructure.
Over and above this, we put in place real-time monitoring and evaluation measures because, of course, what can’t be measured can’t be managed.
Our approach was premised on a three-phase plan.
The first phase was aimed at prevention of infections at a time when there were no known cases. The emphasis here was on awareness and enhanced hygiene practices, and increased monitoring. The phase continued during lock-down and the return of large numbers of employees to work. It lasted until very recently, when we had our first reported case of COVID-19 at South Deep.
The second phase, the one we are currently navigating, is the containment phase. This is when there are few known cases on the mine, with mandatory screening, isolation and the protection of those who are most vulnerable. At South Deep we have introduced an aggressive testing protocol to prolong Phase 2 and, if possible, to avoid Phase 3.
Phase 3 will be implemented when the number of cases increases, giving rise to a partial to full operational shutdown. This involves mechanisms for individual isolation and recovery monitoring and reintegration, as well as operational recovery sequence procedures. This is the phase we are doing our best to avoid.
There are four areas that underpin our strategic approach.
The first is that, without a doubt, leadership at all levels of the business, including our colleagues from organised labour, plays a critical role in the execution of the strategy. It has required out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving from first principles. This leadership has led to the strengthening and maturation of management-union relations, joint problem-solving and the visible presence of both management and union leadership on cold winter mornings as screening and ongoing awareness continues.
The second area has been the early implementation of various non-medical measures, such as communication and awareness, hygiene and sanitation, the provision of PPE, intensive screening, and tracking and tracing. Our efforts at education and communication have been intensive and via many communication platforms.
This brings us to our holistic approach, the third element. From the outset we considered an approach centred around the entire day in the life of an employee at work, but also when they are at home, in their communities, and commuting between home and work. We recognise that mines and communities are inextricably linked.
Without a doubt, leadership at all levels of the business, including our colleagues from organised labour, plays a critical role in the execution of the strategy
These four quadrants of our employees’ lives are all equally important and inter-linked. A break in any one part of the chain compromises all other aspects. And, while we cannot put in place physical controls outside of work, we can ensure that employees are knowledgeable and equipped to be able to do so themselves.
We have therefore put in place systems that encourage self-assessment and reporting, in an environment free of stigma and consequences. Employees who are most vulnerable to the infection, be it because of age or pre-existing medical conditions, have been assessed, are counselled and placed on precautionary sick leave to reduce their risk of exposure.
There has also been a very robust and demonstrable support for the needs of our employees and communities during this time, in particular ensuring that employees, including contractors, are paid a basic wage throughout the lock-down period. Employees who have not yet been recalled also continue to be paid.
Finally, South Deep has embarked on an aggressive, risk-based testing strategy under which all employees will be tested, prioritised on a four-tier, risk-based classification. We recognise that testing alone is not the answer, but believe that testing, as part of a holistic risk-based approach, will contribute to our understanding of transmissions, of preventing them and keeping our people and their families healthy and safe.
The four-tier risk-based classification comprises cyclical testing of at-risk employees such as health workers; testing of employees who have been recalled to work; and risk-based sampling based on the nature of employees’ work or their communal risk with the aim of testing 80 employees a day, so that all employees are tested every 30 days.
We are not afraid of finding cases of COVID-19 at South Deep. We are more afraid of not finding them
Fourthly, we test on a case-by-case basis for identified persons at risk through screening or contact reporting.
The decision to embark on this aggressive testing initiative has not been taken lightly – clearly there is a significant expense involved; it is disruptive to operations and it has the potential to cause concern and fear.
Our premise is this: the more we know, the better we can manage the pandemic. And that our knowledge and the knowledge gained by our employees will help us raise awareness, destigmatise the disease, and place equal responsibility for our behaviours and actions on individuals and the mine alike.
We actively encourage our people to self-screen for symptoms and contacts every day, and truthfully and accurately report on these. We are not afraid of finding cases of COVID-19 at South Deep. We are more afraid of not finding them.
We recognise that there is a shortage of testing capacity in the country, and believe that our increased testing capacity can make a positive contribution to the national effort. We will make excess capacity available to support our families as well as local public testing requirements.
Ultimately, there are no guarantees that our approach will be successful. But we believe a holistic approach will curb the spread of the infection and help us to protect our people including those most vulnerable and their families and our communities.
Martin Preece is the executive vice president and head of South Africa region for Gold Fields.