Glencore’s efforts to reduce fatalities among its staff have suffered a setback with the announcement that the death toll from an accident at a Congolese mine has risen to seven.
Rescuers have been searching for survivors for 10 days, after the wall of an open pit mine owned by a Glencore subsidiary, Katanga, collapsed on employees performing upgrade work. It had previously reported three fatalities at the operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), saying it would keep looking for four people who were unaccounted for.
But the Switzerland-based business announced it had given up hope of finding anyone left alive. The accident takes the company’s death toll so far this year to eight, compared with 10 in 2015, after an earlier accident in Kazakhstan.
“It is with deep sadness that Glencore must now assume that any individual who was in KOV open pit at the time of the incident will not have survived,” the company said in a statement.
Ivan Glasenberg, chief executive, said: “On behalf of the board, we offer our deepest condolences to the families of the deceased individuals and our sincere thanks to the search-and-rescue team who have worked tirelessly over the past 10 days. We must reiterate that any loss of life at our operations is unacceptable and we will continue to work relentlessly to improve health and safety across the group.”
The London Mining Network, a charity concerned with the impact of mining, said the incident cast doubt on Glencore’s efforts to improve safety. “Glencore has a poor health and safety record, to go with the poor reputation it has earned for environmental and social issues,” said its spokesman, Andrew Whitmore.
“The company claims to be addressing this issue but it is difficult to see how health and safety has the highest priority in a company with the trading and profit-driven culture of Glencore,” he added.
The London-listed commodity company, which appears in many UK pension fund portfolios due to its place in the FTSE 100, has sought to address a fatality count that compares unfavourably to its competitors. Criticism of its record reached a peak when it reported 26 deaths in 2013, above the norm for major mining companies.
It has since reduced the number of fatal accidents, reporting 16 in 2014 and 10 in 2015, thanks in part to a company-wide initiative called SafeWork. But the new incident, the first at Katanga for 16 months, means it could struggle to keep momentum towards its goal of zero fatalities.
Operations at Katanga were suspended last autumn when the company responded to a slump in the copper price by ceasing production at mines in the mineral-rich “copperbelt” stretching through Zambia and the DRC.
The accident is understood to have happened when the north wall of the open pit mine collapsed during upgrade work during the shutdown. Glencore has previously pointed to repairs it has made at Katanga to improve safety after years of state control.
A spokesman for Glencore said in 2009 that “more than $11m has been spent on reinforcing more than 1,900m of mine shaft roof and on completing mined-out production chamber support, following a thorough review of rock mechanics to improve safety”.
Glencore’s safety record first came under scrutiny after its stock market flotation in 2011, during which it released a sustainability report saying that 56 people were killed working for the company between 2008 and 2010. BHP had lost 23 in the same period while Rio Tinto reported 32 in a four-year period.
The latest tragedy to hit Glencore takes the death toll this year to eight and threatens to see it fall behind its competitors on safety. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner, reported five deaths last year, while Anglo American suffered four and Rio Tinto six.
Like other mining companies, Glencore wrestles with difficult conditions for miners, with economic slowdown in China resulting in rock-bottom prices for its product.
The Switzerland-based company lost $4.9bn last year and its shares have slumped to 156.5p compared to their flotation price of 530p.
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