The world's leading producers of gold and platinum are among mines hit by one-day strike was called by the 270,000-member National Union of Mineworkers.
The union said some 40,000 members, some brought in by bus, marched in Johannesburg on the Chamber of Mines, the industry employer's organization that includes leaders AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Anglo Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
Chamber officials did not comment, other than to refer to a joint statement released after a meeting last week with the union at which it was agreed the protest strike would be on a "no work, no pay basis."
Both sides acknowledged in the statement "there is much to be done to drastically reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on the mines."
Union spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said: "We've had a lot of commitment from them, but (improved safety measures) haven't been implemented. We felt they needed a bit of a push."
A spokesman for AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., Steve Lenahan, said no gold was produced Tuesday. He said the several hundred miners who showed up for work were doing safety exercises. AngloGold Ashanti employs 38,000 workers, including contractors.
Lenahan said the company's quarterly production would be affected by the strike, accidents, mandated mine closures for investigations or management's own decision to close mines to conduct safety exercises.
"We did say at the outset that we were going to make safety our priority, and there's a consequence for that in production," Lenahan said.
The problems, compounded by the country having the deepest mines in the world, often are seen as a hangover from the former white apartheid regime, which was seen as unconcerned about the safety, poor pay and dire living conditions of black miners. Fourteen years after the end of white rule, miners continue to be the poorest paid in the industrial sector.
"Our safety records both as a company and as a country leave much to be desired," Patrice Motsepe, one of a new breed of black mine owners, said. He spoke in October when 3,200 of his Harmony Gold miners were trapped more than a mile underground for two days after a pressurized air pipe exploded.
The miners escaped unscathed, but the accident brought international attention to South Africa's mine safety issues. The mining union said the Harmony miners should have been able to get out through a secondary exit, but that mine owners long had ignored their calls for all shafts to have two exits.
President Thabo Mbeki ordered an audit of all mines. It was not known how long that could take South Africa has a shortage of safety inspectors.
Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said "drastic measures" were being taken to ensure safety rules were followed. She spoke in a week when the government shut down at least 50 mines because of unsafe working conditions.
In a memorandum handed to the Chamber of Mines on Tuesday, the union complained of "the apparent lack of legal action" taken against mine managers found by investigators to have been delinquent in cases of accidents.
"Legislation must be strengthened in the areas that provide for fines, and imprisonment imposed in severe punishment for high noncompliance," the memorandum said.
South Africa's Business Day newspaper, in an opinion piece, said mine supervisors "remain hostile to the introduction of new (safety) values into a traditionally conservative environment."
"The mines are worse than battlefields," said Solidarity, a small independent union. "It is a pity that so many people had to die before role players acknowledged the gravity of the problem."
By the end of September, some 226 miners had been killed on the job in 2007, the mineworkers' union said, compared to 199 in all of 2006.
NUM said three workers were killed in accidents over the weekend, but did not have an updated toll for the year. The number of fatalities had been dropping, from nearly 900 in 1987 to about 500 in 1997, according to mines inspector Gazi.
The strike could affect the bottom line for mining companies already reporting losses as depleted resources force them to dig ever deeper at greater cost.
When a worker was killed by a falling rock at Anglo Platinum's Paardekraal shaft, the largest platinum mine in the world, the company said the shutdown was losing it 1,300 ounces of refined platinum a day in October. The eight-day closure sent platinum prices to an all-time high of US$1,454 an ounce.
The strike over safety follows one for higher pay. With global minerals prices on the rise, miners won raises of up to 10 percent this year, but the average miner still earns about R3,500 (US$500; Ђ300) a month.