On Tuesday, however amidst cheers and tears of joy, at 12:12 AM Chilean Time, the first of the Chile miners to be rescued, Florencio Avalos reached the surface. The 33 miners trapped in the mine are to be raised to the surface one by one in a metal cage less than 22 inches across. By mid day, all of the miners are expected to be removed from their underground prison, ending what has been over two months for them trapped beneath the surface. The miners and their loved ones hope that no one ever has to go through anything like this ever again.
This situation, the miners rescue, demonstrates the necessity of stronger and more tightly enforced regulations in the mining communities in Latin America and around the world. Mining has always been a hazardous job, and more hazardous than most jobs, but the safety of mines has been increased quite a good deal over the years. In present times, mine workers are more likely to be hit and killed by a car than killed while mining. Fifty years ago it was quite commonplace for a miner to get killed and it was just too bad, and the company would give a check to the widow.
Within the last decade though, the mentality in the industry and public has shifted to the point that no accident is acceptable anymore, which is a reflection of societal shifts in expectations for safety, workers rights, and the high costs of litigation due to irresponsible safety precautions, and fatalities from those settlements. We do need to stop treating workers in the mines, and every job for that matter as they are expendable in this fashion. This is better ethics for the mining industry and reflects better conditions for the workers.
Chances of survival following mine accidents has also increased in recent years, as other recent rescues in China’s Shanxi coal mine, Pennsylvania’s Quecreek Mine, and in the Philippines Gold Mine in 2008 and 2002, which have all provided valuable standards and procedures for the entire mining industry. In most mine communities, standards for the safety and also emergency rescue teams are dependent upon the mining company, and most of the major companies in the industry do maintain high safety standards. However, those that aren’t so big and with the resources of the larger companies, the small to medium sized companies similar to the San Jose mine don’t have as high a set of standards, and aren’t fully up to par by comparison.
According to a research professor at the Colorado School of Mines, John Tilton, “Safety standards vary greatly in mining. The large multinational mining companies have very high standards, while small and medium sized mines do not have the economics that allow them that luxury.” This accident and the subsequent Chile Miners Rescue, with all the publicity and worldwide attention that it has brought to bear, is bringing pressure on those smaller operations with sub-par standards to increase those standards. There is also a sense that more government intervention and oversight as well as the capacity to deal with mine related problems are in order according to Keith Slack, a Senior Policy Adviser for Extractive Industries at Oxfam America.
The mining industry is largest in several countries including Chile, Australia, Canada, South Africa and the US. Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world, and with all our technological needs for copper, there is great demand for it. Other large mining countries include India, China, and Russia, as well as a million or more small scale miners around the globe. No matter the safety standards, this job is inherently dangerous anywhere it is done. For example, in 2010 alone, there have already been recorded 59 mine related deaths for coal and metal/non-metal sectors in the US alone, including the 29 that were killed this last April in a West Virginia accident. Those numbers have improved exponentially over the years though according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. There were 3,242 mining deaths in 1907 compared with 18 in 2009, and 59 so far for this year, 2010. In Chile, the country’s mining regulator goes on record to say the the number of incapacitating injuries/million work hours decreased from 33 in 1989 to 4 in 2009. In China, according to Reuters, the death toll was 2,631 for 2009, which, by the way, is down from over 7,000 in 2002. Many others also indicate that many deaths for mine related accidents go unreported.
In the US, smaller outfits still do not have high enough standards, and there are projects to help develop safety and training for them, according to Michael Nelson, an associate professor and chair of mining and engineering at the University of Utah, which is working on a project to develop safety training material for small mines of ten or less workers.
The moral of the story is, safety in this industry is imperative and should be first and foremost in everyone’s minds, not an afterthought. Public opinion helps, but a good ethics program wouldn’t hurt. It is just wrong to ignore worker safety for the sake of a few extra bucks. The ethics of mining has come a long ways in the past century, but there still is a ways to go as we hear cheers for the Chile Miners Rescue, whom got lucky this time. Let’s all hope this brings more pressure to bear on those that are lacking in the standards of their operations and bring them up to par!