The concept of ‘vulnerability’ is well established within the realm of research ethics and most ethical guidelines include a section on ‘vulnerable populations’. However, the term ‘vulnerability’, used within a human research context, has received a lot of negative publicity recently and has been described as being simultaneously ‘too broad’ and ‘too narrow’.1 The aim of the paper is to explore the concept of research vulnerability by using a detailed case study – that of mineworkers in post-apartheid South Africa. In particular, the usefulness of Kipnis’s taxonomy of research vulnerability will be examined.2
In recent years the volume of clinical research on human subjects in South Africa has increased significantly. The HIV and TB pandemics have contributed to this increase. These epidemics have impacted negatively on the mining industry; and mining companies have become increasingly interested in research initiatives that address these problems. This case study explores the potential research vulnerability of mineworkers in the context of the South African mining industry and examines measures that can reduce this vulnerability.