On Monday, November 27, 2023, Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. (Implats) reported a serious safety failure involving its hoisting system at the 11 Shaft of its Rustenburg operation in South Africa’s North West province that claimed the lives of 12 miners and injured another 74. The winder rope remained connected to a 3-level lift, which hoists miners up and down the shaft, as it fell nearly 180 meters (m) before coming to a sudden stop above the shaft bottom.
More than 15 specialist rescue teams, referred to as proto teams locally, were deployed to 11 Shaft. Other mining operations sent all available ambulances to Impala Rustenburg to assist in transporting the injured to the nearby hospitals, with paramedics deployed to give medical assistance. Working throughout the evening and into the early morning hours, the first responders accessed underground workings, cleared all three levels of the lift, and brought 86 miners to the surface. Each level of the lift has the capacity to carry 35 miners.
On Tuesday, November 28, Implats CEO, Nico Muller, issued a statement saying: “All mining operations at Impala Rustenburg were proactively suspended on Tuesday, 28 November 2023, with our first responsibility and priority being the safety and wellbeing of our employees at the mine. Operations at 11 Shaft and 11C Shaft will remain closed until all internal processes are complete — we are conducting these with officials from the Department of Minerals Resources and Energy. At this time of profound grief, our thoughts are with the families mourning their loved ones. We stand in solidarity with our employees, their families, communities and indeed everyone impacted by this heartbreaking event.
The 11 Shaft is approximately 1,000 m deep with operations across 20 levels. After ascending as scheduled towards 17 level, the lift unexpectedly reversed direction and began descending back down through the shaft. The emergency protocol for such an incident was immediately and automatically activated. The winder rope remained intact, but the emergency protocol failed to immediately arrest the lift’s rapid descent.
The lift came to a sudden stop at 20 level, some 180 m below 17 level close to the bottom of 11 Shaft, when the counterweight reached the top of the headframe on the surface, and as designed, was caught in jack catches. This resulted in a sudden, almost instantaneous deceleration, the force of which severely impacted the 86 miners who were standing upright in the three levels of the lift at the time. Given that the lift was still attached to the winder rope as it dropped, the company does not believe the lift was in freefall and, as a result, the precise break force is not currently known.
The company said the mechanisms used to operate the conveyance system, and the safety protocols involved in arresting falls in such systems, are known to be safe and are used in mining operations globally.
“While we have a strong understanding of what happened yesterday, we are still investigating how it could have happened, and the answer to that question and other concerns may take some time to accurately establish,” Muller said. “We are working closely with the relevant authorities and will provide additional updates when possible and appropriate.”
As of today, November 30, 2023, Impala said 14 of the 74 have been discharged. Of the remaining 60 hospitalized miners, 10 remain in critical care. No further fatalities have been reported.