US & World

Mine Ordeal Prompts Calls For Tougher Safety Rules

Overview of the San Jose Mine zone near Copiapo, Chile, where 33 trapped miners were brought to safety on Oct. 13.
Overview of the San Jose Mine zone near Copiapo, Chile, where 33 trapped miners were brought to safety on Oct. 13.
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Now that the San Jose miners have been brought to the surface, safety groups say Chile should adopt international standards for mines. The San Jose Mine was operating despite repeated violations.

Amid the joy at the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners, there are concerted efforts to make sure the kind of accident that led to their 69-day ordeal doesn't happen again.

International work safety groups are pressing Chile to adopt international standards for mine safety, and create a watchdog agency with the teeth to enforce them.

Dick Blin, a spokesman for the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions in Geneva, says the San Jose Mine accident is a sign that the workplace safety culture needs to change in Chile and countries like it.

"Chile is a top-ranking country when it comes to mineral production," Blin says, "yet it has a very substandard safety culture. Unions don't have a place at the table when it comes to safety."

Blin notes that the San Jose Mine was closed down for safety violations in 2006 and 2007. Chilean safety officials pointed out at the time that the mine needed a second entrance, so that miners would have another way out in case of disaster.

The mining company resumed operations without making necessary changes. The mayor of the nearby town of Caldera, Brunilda Gonzalez, has alleged that regulators were bribed to allow the mine to re-open.

Adoption Of International Safety And Health Standards

Blin's organization says Chile should sign on to the International Labor Organization's convention on Safety and Health in Mines, a 1995 agreement that sets minimum standards for mines, such as adequate ventilation, fire protection and emergency response procedures.

The United States hasn't ratified many of the ILO's conventions, but it was an early signer of the agreement on mine safety, in part because of vigorous support from the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Byrd, who grew up in a coal-mining region, argued that the standards would give U.S. miners a more level playing field with miners in developing countries.

Mine safety expert Davitt McAteer says the ILO agreement establishes a "floor" of basic safety standards, "but they don't guarantee that accidents won't happen."

McAteer is a former official of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the current director of the governor of West Virginia's investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 miners in April.

He says mine safety standards depend on good enforcement and good compliance.

"The Chilean enforcement team is very well-intentioned, but the question is, 'Do you have enough people? Can you get out to these mines?' " McAteer says.

Taking The Risk For Scarce Jobs

The union at the San Jose Mine lobbied hard to keep the mine closed until it complied with safety regulations, but the group didn't have enough clout, Blin says -- in part because the miners themselves needed the pay that the mine provided.

McAteer visited the Atacama Desert region where the San Jose Mine is located about eight years ago, and he says it's a desolate place.

"You can see the plume of dust from the mine from about 40 miles away. It's not the end of the world, but you can see the end of the world from there," he says.

Jobs are hard to come by. Blin says the San Jose Mine had a reputation for paying comparatively high wages -- wages that miners were willing to accept, even though they knew the mine was dangerous.

"If a manager or an owner wants to increase the salaries for risk-taking, there's likely to be takers," McAteer says.  "You need enforcement that will discourage those risks."

Blin says miners' unions in Chile tend to be small and fragmented, with relatively little leverage with mine owners or the government.  He says there are around 75 miners' unions in the country, and that they have only recently made efforts to unite. "This incident brought them together," he says.

McAteer says one lesson of the Chilean experience is that "if we can avoid instantaneous deaths at the time of an event, we have a better chance now than we've ever had in the history of mining to get them out alive. What one might hope, is that the amount of effort and expense required to do that would be put out in front to prevent these accidents in the first place." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit