Geneva (Reuters) - Many fatalities go unrecorded in the mining industry, where many workers face deadly hazards underground and potential cover-ups by management and authorities if accidents occur, experts said on Monday.
The saga of 33 miners trapped in Chile since an August 5 cave-in in a tunnel 2,300 feet below the surface has exposed perilous labor conditions in a booming sector chasing strong prices for gold, coal and copper.
The men caught in the San Jose copper and gold mine, whom Chilean officials hope to start evacuating on Wednesday, have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident.
There are no reliable global statistics for deaths in one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, but a Geneva-based trade unions federation estimates there are 12,000 fatalities per year.
“These are only recorded ones that we are able to track,” said Dick Blin, spokesman of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM).
“A lot of mining deaths aren’t recorded. It is really hard to put a number of it. In a lot of countries, management will go to the widows or family and give them money and make them sign statements not to talk about it. The problem is very prevalent in China,” he told Reuters.
Major mining accidents claiming dozens of lives each have occurred this year in China, Colombia, Russia and West Virginia in the United States, while at least 200 died in Sierra Leone.
Mines require both regular inspections and enforcement of safety measures, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency.
“There are a lot of dangers inherent to mining. They are working underground in an environment which might not be stable. There are possible rock slips, inrushes of water and gases like methane,” Martin Hahn, ILO mine safety expert told Reuters.
Coal-mining tends to be most dangerous because of the likely presence of methane, a toxic asphyxiating gas that can be explosive, depending on the concentration, he said.
Large companies tend to have a good system of inspections in place, but in many countries the sector is marked by small-scale mining where workers labor in appalling conditions outside state control, according to Hahn, who declined to name names.
Mines in China -- the world’s largest coal producer and consumer which employs 5.5 million coal miners --- are “definitely recognized as the world’s deadliest” despite government pledges to shut or consolidate many small or unsafe operations, said ICEM’s Blin.
China’s official mining death toll last year was 2,631, down from some 7,000 in 2002. This year, a fire at a colliery in Hunan in January killed at least 25 while a fire at a gold mine in the east killed 16 in August.
Russia, one of the world’s top five coal exporters, is conducting an in-depth mine safety campaign following a blast at the Raspadskaya coking coal mine in Siberia in May that killed some 90 people.
Only 24 countries have ratified the ILO Safety and Health in Mines Convention -- including major industry players such as the United States, Brazil, Peru and South Africa.
But Chile -- the world’s top copper producer -- as well as Australia, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Russia and Ukraine are among those who have shunned the 1995 pact.
Editing by Jonathan Lynn