WELKOM, South Africa (AP) — Thabang Moorosi, a former driller in South Africa's gold mines, takes a minute to catch his breath after struggling onto a hospital bed for his monthly lung check.
The 60-year-old, a long-distance runner in his youth, was diagnosed in 2005 with a lung disease, silicosis, after years of inhaling silica dust at rock faces far below ground.
He is one of tens of thousands of miners preparing to sue some of South Africa's largest gold mining companies, including Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold and Goldfields, for damages. Last week, a South African judge said gold miners who got lung diseases while working underground, as well as families of miners who died of such diseases, can launch a class action suit against those companies. Some companies said they want to reach a settlement to avoid litigation that could last many years.
"I used to run marathons, but these days I struggle to walk around the block," Moorosi told The Associated Press in Welkom, a town in South Africa's Free State province that flourished generations ago when gold was discovered there.
"I was a healthy man when I started working on the mines in 1973," Moorosi said. "But my lungs are cracked now. I have no power. I can no longer lift heavy things."
Thousands of miners like Moorosi have been treated for lung diseases over the years, said Rhett Kahn, a doctor who works in a ramshackle house in downtown Welkom.
"I realized there was a problem from the moment I started working on the mines in 1982," Kahn said. "The wards in the mining hospitals were filled with young men who had tuberculosis," he said in his clinic's waiting room, which is plastered with posters warning about lung diseases and other ailments.
Retired mine worker William Mothabeng and four friends sat in a park, listening to music on a radio in a Welkom township located between two decommissioned mine shafts.
Mothabeng said he spent decades working in the gold mines, but was retrenched in 1997 after he was diagnosed with silicosis.
"I gave them many years of my life," he said of his work.
"In many of the houses here, there are no men," Mothabeng said, pointing at some tin shacks. "Many of them have died, either from the rock falls or from a lung disease."
Dozens of workers, mostly poor men from Lesotho, Mozambique and South Africa, told The Associated Press that they are supposed to wait at least 12 hours for dust to settle after blasting at a rock face. But they said they are paid bonuses by the mining houses to haul out rocks as fast as possible to speed up gold production. The miners said they are given masks, but seldom wear them due to the high temperatures in the mine.
Inspectors from the country's mineral resources department or health ministry are seldom present to enforce the rules.
It takes around 10 years for miners to develop silicosis from constantly inhaling dust, Kahn said. Once miners have silicosis, they are usually infected with tuberculosis. Many die before they reach 50.
Richard Spoor, the lawyer who initiated the lawsuit, said 35 gold mining companies are defendants.
"We are dealing with people who have worked on about 100 or more mines over a period of 50 years and around 100,000 plaintiffs," he said. "We will spend the coming months trying to track down mine workers across southern Africa who have been infected with silicosis."
Preventing silicosis is relatively simple but costly as it involves ventilating a mine with vast quantities of refrigerated air, Spoor said. During apartheid, South Africa's system of white minority rule which ended in 1994, many young black men worked in the mines until they were sick or dead because there were few protections, he said.
Some mining houses recognize that current compensation for victims of silicosis is inadequate and are eager to reach a settlement, said Alan Fine, a spokesman for six gold companies.
"The companies don't think it is in their interests to have that hanging over them, and neither is it in the workers' interests to have to suffer delays of the sort that would be inevitable," Fine said. "We want to find a solution as soon as possible."