Twenty-two former underground miners are claiming more than R80m in damages from Sasol Coal after they contracted serious lung and other diseases allegedly as a result of years of inhaling coal dust while working in underground coal mines.

They are arguing that Sasol Coal was negligent in failing to take adequate care to maintain healthy working conditions underground, in violation of several health and safety laws, according to GroundUp. Even if it was not negligent, the miners say the company bears the liability of their ill-health and loss of income for being unable to work.

The miners are represented by Richard Spoor, who last year reached a R5bn settlement with seven gold mining companies for miners afflicted with silicosis contracted after years of breathing silica dust in underground mines. In papers before the Gauteng High Court (Johannesburg), 12 of the miners say they were dismissed from employment because they contracted lung-related illnesses which made them unable to continue working.

'The plaintiffs have suffered permanent physical impairment. Such impairment includes shortness of breath, generalised weakness, chronic chest discomfort, tiredness and disturbed sleep,' states the miners' particulars of claim.

In its reply, Sasol argues that the matter has prescribed – summons was served in April 2015, outside the three-year window allowed by the Prescription Act. Sasol's court papers show several of the miners were dismissed for illegal strike action, and some had received medical compensation once their conditions had been diagnosed, notes GroundUp.

One of the miners has since passed away. In other cases, workers' medical conditions were deemed not severe enough for compensation; and in some instances, Sasol denies the miners suffered from any lung disease. The company argues that it provided proper mine ventilation to reduce dust particles to acceptable levels, and all workers were given adequate protective gear.

The case is about to enter the pre-trial stage. If settlement is not reached, the matter will likely go to trial in 2020.

Full GroundUp report