S.Africa court suspends Northam mine safety stoppage

JOHANNESBURG, March 13 Tue Mar 13, 2012 11:11am EDT

JOHANNESBURG, March 13 (Reuters) - South Africa's Labour Court has suspended a safety stoppage at a mine operated by Northam Platinum in the first corporate legal challenge to a government drive that has cut output in the world's largest platinum producer, a union said.

South Africa's department of mineral resources has upped on-site inspections and dramatically increased its issuing of "Section 54s" -- the regulation evoked to temporarily close mining operations for safety violations.

"Northam Platinum brought an application for an urgent interdict in order to have a section 54 order issued to the company's Zondereinde mine declared invalid," trade union Solidarity said in a statement.

"The Labour Court provisionally ruled in the employer's favour and gave the department until 27 March 2012 to submit replying affidavits," it said.

Neither the company nor officials at the department of mineral resources were immediately available for comment.

But a copy of the court order obtained by Reuters says that the Section 54 is "suspended, pending the resolution of this application".

Such a challenge is rare and comes against the backdrop of industry frustration at the safety campaign and the blanket nature of the stoppages, which have seen the closure of entire mines.

Safety-related stoppages cost the platinum sector 300,000 ounces last year in lost output -- about 5 percent of global production and worth about $500 million at current prices.

But the department of mineral resources has said the industry needs a shake-up to cut deaths in the country's mines, the world's deepest and among its most dangerous.

In the first two months of this year, government data obtained by Reuters shows 22 people were killed compared with 20 in the same period last year. In the platinum sector, the death toll rose to seven from five.

Injuries in the January to February period this year fell almost 60 percent to 190 from 466.

Fatalities and injuries in the Rustenburg area are also down: deaths over the period fell to 4 from 7 while injuries plunged 87 percent to 19 from 148.

This could stem in part from working days lost to the stoppages and a six-week illegal strike at Impala Platinum's Rustenburg operation, the world's largest platinum mine.

PGM output in South Africa fell 19.5 percent year on year in January, official data showed on Tuesday.

(Editing by Jason Neely)

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