As we take a rare collective moment worldwide to celebrate the rescue of 33 men from a collapsed Chilean mine this month, our PHM colleague Tim Holtz calls on us not to forget the millions of other miners who never make the news.
In their excellent editorial in the Toronto Star this week (posted below), Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Timothy Holtz, and Thomas H. Gassert remind us that wherever and however it is done, mining destroys the environment and endangers people’s health.
When we wrote A Community Guide to Environmental Health, we struggled with the bleakness of this situation. Working with miners, communities, and environmental health activists, we collected strategies and ideas for reducing harm from mining, and stories from communities that have organized to hold corporations accountable for their health and safety. These stories and strategies—now published in the book—are practical and perhaps show a way forward: to continue struggling for better conditions, more recycling of metals, less use of coal as fuel, and more intelligent consumption patterns. And no path forward would be worth taking if it didn’t also include time to celebrate, for instance, the lives and victories of the Chilean miners and those who worked tirelessly for their rescue.
October 17, 2010, Toronto Star
Dr. Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Dr. Timothy Holtz, and Dr. Thomas H. Gassert
With the world’s eyes focused on the dramatic rescue of 33 miners trapped in Chile’s San José mine, it is high time to shed light on mining’s bleak reality.
Across the globe, some 13 million of the world’s most impoverished people — including 1 million children — work as miners, either in underground ore extraction or surface-level quarries and pits.
Mining is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations.
In addition to the explosions, falling rock and entrapments that have killed thousands of people in recent years (as this article was going to press, a blast at a Chinese mine killed at least 20 workers and trapped another 17), miners experience among the highest rates of work-related illness and premature death of any industry. Chronic obstructive lung disease, tuberculosis, lung damage from exposure to heavy metals, exposure to asbestos and silica which cause lung cancer, and black lung disease are all common.
There are frequent ergonomic and crush injuries and deaths due to equipment failure, mine collapse and falls. Chemical, gas and hazardous dust exposures to radon, uranium, diesel particulates, methane, cyanide (used as a gold and copper solvent), and other substances can result in fatal poisonings and lead to tortuous deaths from cancer.
No global tears are shed over these horrendous conditions. Although safety measures — including masks and respirators, adequately maintained equipment and limited working hours — have all been proven to reduce disability and death, occupational safety and health standards are lax or poorly enforced. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Chile signed and ratified, explicitly describes the foundations of labour rights, which include the right to just and healthy working conditions. However, these human rights are routinely violated in Chile and nearly every country where mining takes place in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania.
Indeed, the company that operates the San José copper-gold mine, Empresa Minera San Esteban, was cited 42 times for safety violations between 2004 and 2010, and in fact was shut down temporarily in 2007 due to safety concerns after the death of a miner.
Between 2003 and 2007, at least three miners have died in the San José mine, and at least one has lost a leg. Several of the miners rescued this week reportedly told the company that they feared a collapse in the mine, but the management did nothing to prevent this occurrence.
In addition, the type of grid mining that the company was conducting generates the highest profits for mining companies, but is also the most dangerous for miners underground. To compensate, their salaries were reportedly 20 per cent higher than in comparable mines, but their safety was not assured.
Mining also causes enormous environmental damage, including seepage of heavy metals, acids and other toxic by-products into the land and waterways, erosion of topsoil, destruction of forests and natural habitats, and killing of wildlife. Surface strip mining, now occurring with more frequency in northern Canada, is particularly damaging to ecosystems as it strips all vegetation from the earth.
Amidst such human and environmental destruction, mining is one of the world’s most lucrative industries, with hundreds of billions in annual revenues. It is also one of the most exploitative industries, with CEOs typically earning thousands of times the wages of miners. One of the most poignant aspects in the early days after the trapped miners were discovered to be alive was the fear they expressed that they would be unable to pay their bills while they were not working.
All of these problems could have been addressed, in large part, through strong unions protecting the safety and livelihoods of miners. However, the mining sector has one of the most sordid union-busting histories of any industry, from the 1914 massacre of several dozen Ludlow, Colo., miners and their families seeking to obtain union protection to improve working conditions, to present-day repression of miners and mining critics in settings as disparate as Peru, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea.
Indeed, mining multinationals, among which figure prominently Canadian-owned Barrick Gold and Anaconda Mining, have huge interests across Latin America and have ensured profits by fending off protestors and union organizers alike.
The great irony of the rescue of the brave and resilient miners in Chile this week is that the mining sector, as well as Chile’s heavily pro-corporate government, has garnered a huge public relations coup. Meanwhile, its role in what led to the mining collapse in the first place is left unspoken.
Although the San José mine has now been closed, the health and safety conditions of all the other miners across the country and the region remain unknown, and it is unclear whether the Chilean government will take home the lessons learned in order to improve the safety of the hundreds of other mines in the Atacama Desert region.
Ultimately, the most fitting tribute to the survival of Chile’s 33 is to improve the health, safety and well-being of miners and their families around the world. Following Canada’s humiliating defeat for a UN Security Council seat just as the miners were being rescued, this country has a chance to resurrect its international reputation by becoming a lead player in global mining safety.
Professor Anne-Emanuelle Birn is Canada Research Chair in International Health at the University of Toronto. Dr. Timothy Holtz is a founding member of Doctors for Global Health in Decatur, Ga. They are co-authors (with Yogan Pillay) of Oxford University Press’s Textbook of International Health: Global Health in a Dynamic World (2009). Dr. Thomas H. Gassert is an occupational and environmental medicine specialist at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Photo credit: Chilean government/Handout/Reuters