How to respond in moments of crisis
Artisanal and small-scale cobalt mining is often characterised by its hazardous working conditions that can be found at most of the roughly 40 mine sites known to be in operation throughout Lualaba and Haute-Katanga Province. Makeshift tunnels, a lack of professional mining equipment, poorly enforced regulations, and informal work structures frequently lead to accidents of varying severity – too many of which result in fatalities.
Freddy Mwamba, Health and Safety expert of the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA) in Kolwezi, has spent the last fourteen years working in the industrial mining sector ensuring worker’s physical well-being. He has since turned his attention towards the ASM cobalt sector, known to provide a livelihood to more than 100.000 people seeking to make a living, despite the risks associated with working inside these mines. Mwamba explains: “Our government has recognized artisanal mining as a legitimate livelihood when they introduced ZEAs. We are yet to see a professionalization of mining activity. It is a harsh reality that men working underground must fear tunnel collapses with many tunnels exceeding the legal maximum depth of 30 meters, risking suffocation or being buried alive – especially during the rainy season. A general lack of health and safety procedures and regular training leads to lost-time injuries including equipment-based injuries, while the women washing and sorting cobalt may face health issues related to the prolonged exposure to heavy metals. For workers in this sector, this means taking a calculated risk on a daily basis, as they head to work inside the mines despite many having lost friends and colleagues. How mine workers react in situations of injury can make the difference between a permanent disability or a serious, but temporary injury, or even life and death.”
Local cooperative CMDS and FCA team up to organise a first first-aid training as part of their strategic collaboration
On July 23rd and 25th 2021, the FCA team collaborated with local mining cooperative CMDS to hold first-aid training sessions targeting artisanal miners operating at the Kamilombe mine site. A few weeks earlier, CMDS and the president of the miners requested FCA to help organise such a training to ensure appropriate first-aid responses the next time a mining accident occurs. Miner-facing training sessions are an essential part of the FCA’s mission to assist miners and cooperatives in professionalizing their work, one of the many improvements FCA seeks to foster working with cooperatives – their leadership as well as artisanal miners.
The full-day training sessions took place in the mining town of Kapata. Despite Covid-restrictions, more than 50 long-term, permanent mine workers were able to participate in the voluntary training, including underground diggers, pit owners, and ore washers who came on their own time to learn what they can do to ensure their own safety as well as their colleagues.
Mr. Yves Kasongo, Lead ASM Technical Expert who worked with SAEMAPE for more than ten years prior to joining the FCA team, opened the session reflecting on FCA’s wider mission of professionalizing the ASM cobalt sector with the goal of creating safe and dignified working conditions for men and women mining cobalt on artisanal concessions. He went on to introduce the lead first-aid trainer, Mr. Gabriel Mwamba Yunga, an official trainer certified in public health who has worked in the occupational medicine department at Gecamines for over 40 years and taught over 100 training sessions in the industrial mining sector.
The training started by discussing the occupational risks of mining as well as the legal and normative framework of occupational health and safety. The trainer took time to go over the basics of human anatomy and physiology before moving on to what to do in case of an accident.
Mr. Yunga stressed the importance of staying calm in moments of crisis and not to panic. Yunga explained that in case of an accident, one should never evacuate the injured without alerting medical professionals first. The group learned that in order to protect an injured person, the first-aid responder should first examine them to make sure they are still breathing, check if there is still a heartbeat, and examine if the person is conscious before extracting them from underground. The participants shared that in the past, their knee-jerk reaction was to pull out their injured colleagues immediately, not knowing that they might have put them at increased risk by doing so.
The long-term vision is safe, well-managed ASM sites
With this first first-aid session successfully concluded, CMDS will continue to monitor how miners react in real-life scenarios, hoping that the newly learnt skills will result in safer responses. Refresher training in the coming months will serve to instill these practices and techniques further, with the vision that a larger number of workers can benefit from structured training moving forward.
At the end of the training, the participants were very appreciative of the initiative. They requested that these kinds of training be organized on a regular basis and said they found it eye opening and valuable. “We have learned a lot today,” one of the miners, Walter Nunga (pictured above), a digger at Kamilombe since 2016 said. “We have learned how to manage and save an injured person, how to do CPR, how to transport them to the hospital, and more. I think after today I will be able to save someone. I am also ready to share and communicate what I’ve learned today with others.” Another digger, Edmond Kabela, commented that, had they known what to do and what not to do in the past, he was sure that lives could have been saved.
First-aid training, however, is just a first small step towards more professional mine site governance moving forward. “After this training…. we want FCA to be our partner to support us with training to strengthen our capacity in occupational health and safety”, the president of the diggers said. As the new national and provincial government articulates its vision for the ASM cobalt sector, CMDS and FCA plan how to invest in enhanced mine site infrastructure, excavating topsoil to reduce tunnel depth, introducing appropriate safety gear for individual workers, more efficient equipment, and a more structured site governance to transform ASM sites like Kamilombe into a safe and dignified work environment.