Labour Appeal Court ruling underscores the importance of safety in mining

The Labour Appeal Court has ruled that it is justifiable to dismiss mine employees for a first-time offence of disregarding safety rules, given the high risks in mines

In a recent case, Samancor Limited (Eastern Chrome Mines) v NUM obo Violet Masha, the Labour Appeal Court emphasized the importance of safety in the mining environment and confirmed that disregard for safety may justify dismissal for a first offence.

The dismissed employees were all part of a crew working in an underground workplace.  The shift supervisor instructed the crew not to drill or blast due to unsafe ground conditions. Shortly afterwards, the mine overseer visited the workplace, where he found the crew drilling.  He instructed them to stop and install temporary support. Approximately 10 minutes later, he returned and found the crew had continued working without installing the requisite safety measures. He issued the crew with a written instruction to withdraw to remedy the substandard conditions before they continued with their normal duties. This instruction was also disregarded, as a few days later the same unsafe conditions were still present at the workplace.

The crew members were charged with various breaches of safety rules and failure to comply with instructions and were dismissed.  They referred an unfair dismissal dispute to the CCMA, where it was found that they were guilty, but that dismissal was unfair due to inconsistency (one of the crew members was not dismissed) and they should be reinstated.  Samancor launched an application to review and set aside the arbitration award which was ultimately dismissed by the Labour Court.  Samancor approached the Labour Appeal Court.

To emphasize the importance of safety in the mining environment, the LAC referred to the judgment in the matter of Impala Platinum Limited v Jansen and Others*, in which safety in the mining environment was underscored and where the LAC held that the sanction of dismissal imposed by Impala was substantively fair.

In Samancor, the LAC made the following finding in relation to the appropriateness of the sanction of dismissal:

"While generally it is not appropriate to dismiss an employee for a first offence, this default position does not have to be followed if the misconduct is serious, which includes the wilful endangering of the safety of others. Where the conduct of employees carries a high risk of potential danger to the safety of others which is certainly the case when there is manifest disregard for safety regulations at a mine, dismissal based on the conduct of which the five employees have been found guilty is clearly justified."

The judgment in Samancor is important for employers in the mining industry. The LAC has emphasized the hazardous environment in which mining companies operate and that an employee's failure to comply with safety rules/procedures at a mine may justify dismissal.

As with all disciplinary hearings, the particular circumstances of each case need to be taken into account when considering the appropriate sanction.