(Bloomberg) -- Rescue teams have yet to reach three miners who were trapped underground after an earth tremor at a Sibanye Gold Ltd. mine in South Africa triggered a cave-in that killed at least four people.
The missing workers are trapped about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) underground and the company hasn’t communicated with them since the accident on Thursday afternoon, said Sibanye spokesman James Wellsted. Rescue teams were pulled out so that the situation could be assessed after two more seismic events Friday afternoon, he said.
“We need to ensure that the rescue teams are not placed in danger,” Wellsted said. “The conditions are difficult, there is dislodged loose material, the teams are working in very confined spaces. It’s quite a dangerous process.”
The incident, which brings the total deaths at Sibanye operations this year to at least 10, adds to an already tough year for the company. The producer’s shares recently dropped to two-year lows after a stronger rand squeezed profits and as it faces pressure to cut debt. The company’s borrowings swelled after a series of deals that transformed it from a staid and steady gold producer into a diversified precious-metals miner with both southern African and U.S. assets.
Sibanye shares fell 4.6 percent in Johannesburg, extending this year’s decline to 30 percent. Driefontein produced 482,000 ounces of gold in 2017, accounting for about a third of Sibanye’s output of the metal.
South African gold mines are among the world’s deepest and oldest, with workers going further underground to access new ore in a country that’s been mined commercially for over a century. While safety has improved since the end of whites-only rule in 1994, fatalities in the sector increased last year for the first time in a decade.
“The gold sector has seen an increase in fatalities this year, with Sibanye-Stillwater as one of the main contributors,” Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe said in a statement. “This suggests that greater attention be paid to issues of safety, particularly the protection of the lives of workers, as opposed to the insistence of chasing production.”
The Driefontein accident was caused by a seismic event at about 1:30 p.m. local time on Thursday, Sibanye said. The Department of Mineral Resources and all unions have been notified and are on site to assist with the rescue efforts. Six other workers have been rescued and hospitalized.
The previous fatal accidents at Sibanye this year included two people who were killed at Driefontein in separate incidents. In February, nearly 1,000 workers spent more than a day trapped underground at Sibanye’s Beatrix mine after a severe storm collapsed power lines supplying the operation.
“Government is the regulator so it’s for the government to see if these mines are compliant with health and safety,” Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union President Joseph Mathunjwa said Friday.
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