COSCUEZ, Colombia (Reuters) - Workers at the Colombian emerald mine run by Canada’s Fura Gems’ - the first publicly-traded emerald miner operating in the South American nation - have been laboring in unsafe conditions and sometimes lack basic safety equipment, according to four former employees.
Fura set out early last year to revive production at the fabled, four-century-old Coscuez mine, once the Andean country’s largest producer of the gem.
The Toronto-based company promised to operate by the book in a province known for organized crime and dangerous wildcat mining but the sources - who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals - said it had been falling short.
The former employees said managers at Fura ignored repeated requests to provide staff with equipment like masks and safety glasses.
Fura managers at the mine denied staff were working without proper equipment. Fura spokeswoman Rosey Perkins said: “All allegations concerning safety and especially our employees are taken seriously.”
“We are in the process of mechanizing the mine and adapting operations and safety standards to comply with Colombian and broader international regulations,” Perkins said.
The alleged problems at Coscuez illustrate the challenges for Colombia in properly regulating miners, as it seeks to garner investment from big-name gold and gem companies.
Colombia’s National Mining Agency (ANM) - which regulates the sector - told Reuters it was carrying out a rare sanction process against the company, which was at the notification stage. ANM inspectors most recently visited the mine in March.
Fura managers said they were unaware of the sanction and the ANM declined to provide further details. The agency said, however, the fine was equivalent to about $4,900.
Around 6% of mines in Colombia are fined or shuttered per year, it added.
The ANM said it made recommendations regarding worker equipment and asked Fura to adjust ventilation in the mine tunnel, but did not provide specifics.
Fura’s license expires in December 2020. The ANM said that its policy was not to consider the viability of any renewal unless a mine is complying with all regulations.
About 120 of Fura’s employees work underground. Miners work 12-hour shifts for 14 days, the company said, then take seven days off.
About 70% of the company’s workers are lacking at least one piece of equipment, according to one source familiar with Fura’s safety measures.
Workers are given a mish-mash of supplies - for example, assigned emergency oxygen masks but no gloves - the ex-employee said.
During an unannounced visit to the mine, Reuters reporters were taken on a tour steps behind a third-party inspector hired by the mine, who was on a scheduled visit.
Reuters saw three jackhammer operators without eye protection in a tunnel and many workers who were not wearing the top part of their safety overalls. Some miners had no gloves or gas masks.
When asked by Reuters whether they were provided with eye protection, one of the jackhammer operators said he reported his broken glasses but had not received a replacement.
The mine’s managing director Rahul Gopal, who accompanied Reuters on the tour, said there was “no chance” workers were going without needed equipment, adding that not all workers required every piece of gear.
Workers in Fura’s mine have repeatedly been hurt by falling rocks because they lacked protective gear, the former employees said. They said in one incident falling rocks hurt a worker’s feet, while other employees have suffered cuts.
Another employee suffered burns on his back after being scalded by hot water, one of his former colleagues said.
Deputy general manager Alcides Paiva said there were 45 accidents between January and mid-September, ranging from trivial incidents to more serious ones. Fura confirmed details about the burned worker and showed Reuters reports on workers injured by falling rocks and an overturned vehicle.
During the nine months of 2018 that the mine was operating, there were 53 accidents, he added.
The ANM said it only keeps records for more serious emergencies where a worker’s life was endangered. On average in recent years, there has been 86 such emergencies annually across Colombia’s mining industry, it said.
The labor ministry said it had a record of only one accident - classified as “serious” - at Fura so far this year and said it had no knowledge of the other allegations.
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Christian Plumb and Rosalba O'Brien