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Neglect and safety breaches plague Russia's mines

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Years of post-Soviet neglect and lax safety rules have made Russia’s mines, which employ a quarter of a million people, among the most dangerous in the world.

A wage structure aimed at boosting productivity, which often comes at the expense of safety, also adds to the dangers.

At least 106 people died on Monday in a gas explosion at the Ulyanovskaya coal mine in Siberia, Russia’s worst mining disaster since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Work practices in the former Soviet Union are very much sub-standard compared to the West,” said a London-based mining consultant with experience of working in former Soviet states. “The housekeeping is appalling.”

Alexander Sergeyev, head of the Independent Trade Union of Russian Miners, said the miners were often forced to cut corners on safety because the bulk of their pay depends on how much they produce.

Sergeyev, whose trade union represents about a 10th of Russia’s coal industry, said underground miners in Russia took home about 15,000 roubles ($575) a month -- about 60-70 percent of it made up by bonuses linked to output.

“It’s well understood that if a person -- and I don’t want to blame miners -- is put in such conditions and adheres to all the rules of technical safety, he won’t earn anything,” he said.

Nikolai, a retired miner whose son died at Ulyanovskaya, echoed Sergeyev’s comments, saying: “It’s the old song: work harder and harder and harder. The more coal you get, the bigger your salary.”

ATTITUDES Toward SAFETY

Mining accidents in Russia have killed about two dozen people annually in the past two years. Russia’s state industrial safety watchdog, Rostekhnadzor, said there were no obvious technical causes for the blast on Monday.

Mining sector officials said attitudes toward safety in Russia -- the world’s sixth-largest coal producer -- were lax compared with those of Western counterparts.

“At a lot of mines in the former Soviet Union, people aren’t required to wear hard hats, steel-capped boots, long-sleeved clothes, whereas in Western countries that is very strongly enforced,” a consultant said.

“There’s been no economic incentive to focus on safety.”

The conditions at many Russian mines also worsened after the Soviet Union broke up and many of them were shut down in haste with little regard for maintenance.

Until recently, low commodity prices offered little economic incentive to restart them.

But in recent years, record prices have prompted many mines to reopen, and encouraged those already operational to boost production to Soviet-era levels.

“Whenever you close a mine and don’t take the proper time and money for care and maintenance, solving these problems (after reopening) becomes very difficult and expensive,” said Tim McCutcheon, a partner at Moscow-based finance boutique DBM Capital.

In neighboring Ukraine, poor safety standards have also contributed to high death tolls over the past decade. Attempts to close unsafe mines have hit political resistance, particularly in the Donbass, heart of Ukraine’s coal industry.

Ukraine’s largest accident in post-Soviet times was in March 2000, when 80 miners died near Luhansk.

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