South Africa publishes COVID-19 mine safety rules

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JOHANNESBURG, May 19 (Reuters) - South Africa's mines ministry on Tuesday published safety rules for mines operating during the coronavirus pandemic and said failure to implement them would be a criminal offence.

South Africa, the world's largest producer of platinum and chrome ore and a major miner of gold, diamonds and coal, has gradually restarted operations after a nationwide lockdown.

In April, the authorities relaxed regulations to allow deep level mines to operate at 50% capacity.

The publication of the guidelines follows a court ruling earlier this month requiring employers to implement a code of practice to manage and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"This is to ensure that mine employees returning to work and any other persons at mines, are protected from transmission of the coronavirus at the workplace... whilst providing guidance to all stakeholders regarding their roles and responsibilities in the management of the virus," the mines ministry said.

The regulations require mine operators to supply protective equipment, screen all people entering a mine, provide quarantine facilities, identify those with pre-existing conditions and carry out routine disinfection.

They also have to keep mineworkers between one and two metres apart.

Failure to enforce the rules would constitute a criminal offence, the mines ministry said, although it did not specify what penalties could be faced.

South Africa has reported more than 16,400 cases of the respiratory disease COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.

The figure is the highest on the continent and includes more than 280 deaths.

The mining industry, which employs about 500,000, has reported cases. Assore halted operations earlier this month at a chrome mine after an employee tested positive and Impala Platinum temporally shut operations at its Marula mine after detecting 19 coronavirus cases.

(Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg; editing by Barbara Lewis)