DEL inquiry delves into fatal 2018 explosion


“Structural shortcomings and defective designs” added to “unnecessary overtime” could be contributing factors to the September 2018 explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) factory in Western Cape, an ongoing inquiry heard.

The inquiry, conducted by the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL), resumed in Salt River last week with further evidence hearings to come on as yet unspecified dates. Information in this report is taken from a DEL posting on as government website. Reacting, RDM public relations officer Ruby Maree noted it was “biased” with “certain statements cherry-picked to put RDM in a negative light”.

The overtime claim follows earlier testimony indicating there was “a push” for production over the weekend before the explosion which killed eight employees. This was apparently to provide sufficient material for the N16 plant where CBI single base propellant is blended, a DEL statement said.

Seventeen current and former RDM employees gave evidence at the inquiry, according to DEL. The delay in hearing from witnesses and experts in various disciplines including occupational health and safety, structural engineering and risk assessment, is ascribed to restrictive regulations imposed by government to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Other evidence presented included the fitting of a new butterfly valve in one component of the plant three days before the explosion. Further evidence in this regard was that no risk assessment procedure was undertaken ahead of the new valve being fitted.

A civil engineer specialising in structural engineering is reported as telling the inquiry a traverse (barrier) to prevent fragments, presumably debris in the form of shrapnel, striking and injuring people did not meet health and safety standards. It also functions as protection from blast and flames. The RDM traverse, according to him, “was not in agreement with what the modern rules of traverse design would be”.

Presiding officer Mphumzi Dyulete said at the conclusion of the second day of the Salt River sitting it was “vital” evidence be heard for inclusion in a recommendations report. That report will, at some future stage, be handed to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for evaluation as regards possible charges.

“We hope with evidence provided by witnesses we will be able to determine what transpired on that fatal day. It’s been a long journey especially for the families seeking closure on this matter,” Dyulete is reported as saying.

Maree told defenceWeb RDM cannot comment on specific testimony at the inquiry “as it must be allowed to complete its work without interference”.

“RDM wants placed on record that it complies with strict safety standards based on the OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) Act and international standards. We comply with all required legislation and the company is regularly audited and tested by third parties, including government entities such as DEL. All buildings are physically checked by a representative from the department to ensure compliance,” she said, adding testimony by witnesses should not be viewed in isolation.

“In total, 30 witnesses testified and the SA Police Service (SAPS) and the DEL conducted thorough investigations. Following the incident and in line with statutory obligations, RDM launched an investigation conducted by internal and external investigators. That found the most likely cause to have been a combination of the addition of extra graphite to propellant in one sub-lot of materials and a highly complex and unlikely electrostatic electricity risk,” Maree said.

The inquiry has, to date, heard evidence from 30 people – 13 who were cross examined during its May sitting and 17 who “took the stand” at the just-ended Salt River Community Centre sitting.