They Never Should Have Been Trapped In The First Place

Bill Scher

The world is rightly cheering the ongoing rescue of the trapped Chilean miners. But let’s not forget how they got there: horrible safety regulations and enforcement.

In These Times’ Lindsey Beyerstein reported back in August that the miners would have escaped right away, if only the mine owners followed the law, and the government enforced the law:

Javier Castillo, the secretary of a union that represents miners at another mine owned by San Esteban Primera, said in an interview that managers are proceeding without input from workers. Castillo said he used to work at San Jose, but that he found himself “marginalized” by anti-union practices.The owners of the San Jose mine may face criminal charges for failing to install alternate exit routes, as they were required to do by law.

When the miners first made contact with the outside world, 18 days after the initial explosion, someone had to tell them that the legally mandated emergency ladder didn’t exist. The evacuation exit remained clear for 48 hours and the miners could have escaped during that window, if only they’d had the ladder.

The government had ordered the mine shut down for flagrant safety violations in 2006 and 2007. It only opened up again on the say-so of a junior official who was overstepping his powers. Trade unions had lobbied unsuccessfully to shut down the San Jose mine after a string of fatalities. Local mayor Brunilda Gonzalez alleges that the mine was only allowed to operate because of bribes to regulators.

A Christian Science Monitor report noting that mine safety is better than it was several decades ago — quite a low bar — also observes that all over the world, mining safety standards remain disturbingly inconsistent:

Often the standards for safety and emergency response depend on the employer. For the largest companies in the world, safety standards are high. For the smaller and medium-sized companies, such as at the San Jose mine, the standards are not always up to par.

“Safety standards vary greatly in mining,” says John Tilton, research professor at the Colorado School of Mines. “The large multinational mining companies have very high standards. Small and medium-sized mines often do not have the economics that allow them that luxury.”

Al Jazeera, in the above video report, interviewed a miner who said
“everyone knew” the San Jose mine “was unsafe.” He continued: “The good mines don’t hire people our age [in the 50s]. They prefer them young. So we have no choice but to accept abnormal working conditions.”

The globe is currently dependent on mining, and weak mining safety standards is a global problem.

It is wonderful that all of the trapped miners look to be rescued alive, and that the globe can share in their joy.

But they never should have been trapped in the first place.

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