30 July 2008
Richard Meeran, formerly a Leigh Day partner for 14 years, has returned to the firm after spending four years in Australia with law firm Slater & Gordon. He rejoins the international claims department as a consultant and will be focusing on a series of test cases for South African gold miners who are suffering from silicosis. Richard Meeran previously ran the ground-breaking litigation against Cape PLC (for 7,500 South African asbestos miners), Thor Chemicals (for South African victims of mercury poisoning) and Rio Tinto (Connelly v RTZ), for which he was awarded the 2003 Liberty/Justice “Human Rights Lawyer of the Year” Award.
The current litigation against Anglo American, which has been ongoing in the Johannesburg High Court since 2004, is well advanced and is expected to go to trial in October 2009. Zanele Mbuyisa, who has also worked in the London office of Leigh Day, is co-ordinating the project in South Africa, together with paralegals Gugulethu Kenneth Gumede and Gloria Matlala. Leigh Day & Co has had an office in Johannesburg for a number of years, based at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg.
The legal team comprises the South African Legal Resources Centre (the claimants’ attorneys), Leigh Day (as consultants to the LRC) and an eminent South African counsel team of Martin Brassey SC, Wim Trengove SC, Matthew Chaskalson, Greta Engelbrecht and Richard Moultrie. The case is receiving funding from the South African Legal Aid Board.
What is silicosis?
Silica naturally occurs in crystal rock beds. Silica forms dusts during mining, rock quarrying, and other earth-related jobs. Silica is a principal component of sand, thus glass workers and sandblasters get significant exposure to silica. Silicosis risk factors include work exposure to silica dust. Mining, stone cutting, sandblasting, glass working, road construction, quarry work all have large exposure to silica.
Silicosis is an incurable respiratory disease caused by inhalation of silica dust which leads to inflammation and eventually scarring of the lung. Silicosis is a progressive disease that belongs to a group of lung disorders called pneumoconioses. Like asbestosis, silicosis develops on average between ten and thirty years after exposure.
Silicosis on South African mines
Knowledge of the silicosis risk to gold miners and of the measures required to limit this hazard have been well understood for decades. Due to the long latency period of the disease, many South African miners only contract silicosis after they have left the mines and returned home. A significantly increased risk of TB is also associated with silicosis and excessive dust exposure. The degree of impairment arising from contraction of silicosis ranges from mild to severe. In conjunction with TB (silico-tuberculosis), the consequences may be serious (and fatal), especially if the TB is not treated swiftly and effectively. TB is endemic in South Africa and occupational health services outside urban areas are often rudimentary or non-existent. The combination of these factors leaves ex miners especially vulnerable. To-date although it is dust exposure in the mines that has put miners' health at risk, the mines have made no provision for monitoring ex-miners for TB. The industry has apparently taken the view that once miners have left employment they are no longer the responsibility of the industry.
In order to protect workers against silicosis and TB, dust prevention and protection is crucial. Yet according to the 1994 Leon Commission of enquiry, dust levels on the gold mines had not improved for 50 years. Black miners undertook the dustiest jobs but unlike white miners were not provided with on-site showering or changing room facilities until the 1980s. Respiratory protective masks were only issued in the 1980s and then only erratically. The result is an epidemic of silicosis, silico-tuberculosis and TB.
The test case plaintiffs were employed on Anglo's Free State mines between around 1960 and 1998 (when Anglo shifted its head office to London). The plaintiffs contracted either silicosis or silico-tuberculosis. The claim against Anglo South Africa essentially alleges that this former parent company is liable because it negligently advised the mines in relation to dust protection of miners. A further objective of the legal action is the establishment of an effective TB/silicosis medical monitoring scheme for ex-miners.
published recently in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine
confirmed a high prevalence of silicosis and TB in gold miners formerly employed at an Anglo American Free State mine. The study is of direct relevance to the test case litigation against Anglo.The former miners in the study now live in Lesotho, an impoverished land-locked country surrounded by South Africa, from which migrant labour was extensively sourced by the South African mining industry. Men were employed on the mine until its closure in 1998. The study was conducted by leading South African medical researchers. The rate of silicosis observed was 25%. According to the authors: "These high rates of lung disease amongst former gold miners are of national concern. These findings and their consistency with previously published reports on the prevalence of respiratory disease in ex-miners provide a compelling case for improved statutory surveillance and reporting of silicosis and TB among former gold miners not just for compensation purposes, but also to monitor the effectiveness of control measures aimed at reducing the risk.." The authors also note that the findings of the study are consistent with those of two previous studies in which very similar high rates of silicosis were found in South African gold miners.
The study recommends a "comprehensive program for former miners which would include surveillance to detect occupationally associated lung disease as a check on control measures on the mines and for compensation purposes and for provision of treatment care and support for those diagnosed with these conditions".
Alpheos Blom is one of the plaintiffs involved in the case. He worked as an underground miner on Anglo American's President Steyn Mine in the Free State, South Africa from 1984 to 2001, he never smoked and has been diagnosed with silicosis with massive fibrosis and tuberculosis.
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