The safety and health of employees is paramount, Harmony Gold said on Monday in response to claims by a trade union, and following the rescue of 486 workers.

“The company takes very seriously every safety-related incident, and will collaborate fully with the DMR (department of mineral resources) and representative unions to understand the causes of this incident and to put in place measures to prevent its recurrence,” spokeswoman Charmane Russell said in a statement.

She was responding to a statement by the National Union of Mineworkers that health and safety standards at the company’s Kusasalethu gold mine were “very questionable”.

“As a union, we are deeply concerned about the trend that continues to threaten the lives of many workers in Harmony operations,” NUM national health and safety secretary Erick Gcilitshana said in a statement.

The company said it acknowledged the role played by unions in the successful evacuation of 486 workers at Kusasalethu, after a fire broke out underground on Sunday.

The fire started on the mine’s 75 level, approximately 2300m below surface, around 9.40am on Sunday. It had since been contained.

Some of the miners used refuge bays which had fresh air, water and telephone communication to surface. The fire was believed to have started during maintenance work on a bulk air cooler.

In February 2014 eight people died in an underground fire at the company’s Doornkop mine.

Trade union Solidarity commended Harmony for swiftly ensuring the safety of the mineworkers.

“The successful rescue operation sets a good example to the rest of the industry of how emergency situations should be responded to,” occupational health and safety division head Paul Mardon said in a statement.

“The incident once again highlights the importance of mine safety as well.”

Mardon said mine safety had improved significantly over the past 12 years.

The improvement could be attributed to the commitment of employers, organised labour and government, who had been joining forces since 2003 to improve health and safety, he said.

“Although significant progress has been made in respect of health and safety in South African mines, there is still a lot of room for improvement.”

Harmony said on Monday that all operations were temporarily suspended after the fire.

“Employees do have access to counselling after a situation like this. Everyone was evacuated on Sunday and no injuries were reported,” Russell said.