Harmony Has More ‘Unacceptable’ Deaths After Mine Fire

Harmony Gold Mining Co. stopped all operations for a day of safety checks as two workers died in separate accidents days after an underground fire killed nine in South Africa.

“The past two days have been tragic for Harmony, having lost our colleagues at three of our operations in three separate events,” Graham Briggs, chief executive officer of the South African company, said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”

Managers will lead teams underground to reinforce safety messages and procedures after one worker died during blasting at the Joel mine in Free State province and another was buried under waste rock at Kusasalethu, one of Harmony’s largest mines. Nine workers died at Doornkop mine after a rockfall on Feb. 4 started a fire underground. That’s the most deaths in a single event in the company’s history.

South Africa, once the largest gold producer, has some of the deepest mines as aging deposits prompt companies to dig down for ore. The Doornkop accident is the nation’s worst since nine died in 2009 at a site run by Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd., the second-largest miner of the metal used in rings and necklaces.

Harmony fell 2.8 percent to 28.95 rand at the close in Johannesburg, the lowest since Jan. 15. The company posted its third loss in the past four quarters on Feb. 3.

Bad Start

About 95 people died in South African mines in 2013, according to Paul Mardon, head of safety at trade union Solidarity. That compares with a mining ministry figure of 112 the year before.

“We’ve had a bad start to the year,” Mardon said today by phone. While most mines improved safety, “unfortunately there’s also pressure to increase production” as commodity prices fall.

Gold slid by 28 percent in 2013 and platinum 11 percent.

The deaths in the three Harmony accidents this week already surpasses the nine people killed at its mines in the fiscal year ended June 2013, according to its latest annual report. At least 82 illegal miners died at a disused mineshaft owned by the company, South Africa’s third-largest gold producer, in 2009.

Search and rescue and deep-level firefighting teams were sent to Doornkop after the blaze broke out 1,733 meters (5,700 feet) below the surface this week. About 130 workers were underground at the time, with 35 in the immediate vicinity of the fire and 18 of those able to escape immediately, Briggs told journalists yesterday. Eight miners were found in an underground refuge chamber and brought out unharmed on Feb. 5.

The bodies of eight missing miners were found yesterday, the company said in a statement. The body of the last worker not accounted for was located today, Charmane Russell, a Harmony spokeswoman at Russell & Associates, said by phone.

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